France: Wine, Dreams and History in the Loire Valley

Jul 28, 2009

Go and chill my wine so well…
Can’t you see that time is passing?
I refuse to live in the tomorrow
– Pierre de Ronsard, To His Page

In northern France, a ghostly rain called grisaille or gray drizzle falls on the moody Loire River. It is a solemn, pensive rain, wistful, nostalgic. As it falls on the surrounding vineyards, on gardens filled with roses and lilac, on the Chateaux with their stone emboldened facades, on the medieval bridges spanning the river, one might think of the rain that fell in centuries past.

Both Henry II and Richard Lionheart died at Chinon and the seminal battle of The Hundred Years War was fought here: the Siege of Orléans. Leondardo da Vinci traveled here in his last years to be of assistance to François although perhaps it was the beauty of the land that drew his spirit.

In the nineteenth century, artists, writers, poets and composers flocked to French authoress George Sand’s château in Nohant. Every day the piano rang with the melancholic preludes of Frederic Chopin or the bursting bravado of Franz Liszt while nearby Eugene Delacroix painted and Honore de Balzac sat restlessly dreaming up a new novel to add to his many dozens.

In modern times, the chateaux have become homes to such celebrities as Mick Jagger and Gerard Depardieu.

Through the centuries, the rain and the river Loire move on together. The drizzle is still light and when it passes along with the brief dream of long ago eras, the sunset breaks out and suddenly there is a peace not unlike the bliss of sipping a fresh white wine.

Long and winding (1,012 km or 627 miles) the Loire is France’s Nile or India’s Ganges. From its beginnings in the south, within the volcanic peaks of the Massif Central, it rises in Ardeche department (department) and carves through steep gorges until it reaches the pastoral, garden-like valley itself.

At one time, Viking ships stormed in from the Atlantic to raid Loire Valley villages. In later centuries, Dutch merchant ships traveled its waters. Today, wind surfers whip along on the waves while in the summer, the river is more sandbank than water.

The Loire is one of the largest wine regions in France with 185,000 acres planted under vine. Evidence suggests viticulture was introduced in the late 6th century A.D. Some argue it was St. Martin, Bishop of Tours, who first brought vines from his native Roman Pannonia (modern Hungary) in the 4th century A.D.

In the 7th Century, a party of monks brought the body of St. Benedict from Monte Cassino in Southern Italy to the Loire. Founding an Abbey in Fleury, they named their order after the reverent man. The Benedictines were known for their learning, for their illuminated manuscripts and for their wine.

During the Middle Ages, it was the Benedictines and Cistercians (named after the first abbey of Cîteaux south of Dijon in Burgundy) who cultivated the grape in the Loire (as they did throughout France). Monks (from monos - Greek for solitary man) throughout Europe had the time, talent and wherewithal to study and learn which sites were suitable for the growing of particular varieties. Unlike Burgundy, which became synonymous with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the Loire is difficult to categorize. There are fifty appellations in the Loire and each produces wine both enchanting and stimulating, leaving both novice and seasoned wine drinkers with a longing to explore and re-explore the various sub-regions.

These four sub-regions, loosely grouped, moving from east to west are: the Central Vineyards, Touraine, Anjou-Saumur and the Nantais.

Imagine we are gently sailing down the Loire on a small sailboat. First, we’ll begin in the east between the two towns of Sancerre and Pouilly-Sur-Loire which face each other like Gemini twins. Surrounding these towns are the appellations (or AOC) of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé.
The climate here is closely linked to nearby Burgundy which would best be described as continental – severe winters and hot summer with spring frosts and summer hail, a continuous, devastating problem for the vine growers.

The main variety, Sauvignon Blanc is a grape now synonymous with the best of New Zealand whites. But here, in this pastoral cradle of villages and chalky limestone, with slopes facing south-east and south-west, these small parcels of land produce a white of incredible finesse, subtlety and character. Sancerre’s Sauvignon Blanc is herbaceous with notes of gooseberry and what has been humorously termed as ‘cat’s pee’ (despite how it sounds, it isn’t that bad). Across the river, where there is more flint present in the soil, the Sauvignons are described as being herbaceous but with an additional note of ‘gunpowder’, a minerality evoking smoke and lime. 
In Memoriam: Didier Dagueneau (1956-2008)

Most of these modern wines are fermented in stainless steel. But back in the 1980’s, a new wave of vignernons decided to age their whites in oak barrels. Didier Dagueneau of Pouilly-Fumé was the most famousvof these innovators. A bit of a cross between a wild man (he used to dog sled in the Arctic) and a Revolutionary artist, Dagueneau produced (until his death in the Dordogne region of France when his utltralight plane stalled after takeoff) wines that offered consumers a lush, full-bodied and intense Sauvignon Blanc, nothing they’d ever experienced before. This enfant terrible became a legend overnight, a man equally hated and loved by his neighbours, by fellow wine producers and critics. He rattled cages, stayed away from the mainstream, pushed his small vineyards to produce the best, creating a diverse dimension to what some might be considered a fun, summer white. We may never see his like again.

Sancerre, like its neighbour Menetou-Salon, also produces reds and roses made from Pinot Noir and Gamay. It is interesting to note that Sancerre actually started out as a red wine, a wine revered by Henri IV who believed its very power and beauty could stop all wars. In the early twentieth century, Algeria had created a bulk red wine market and in order for the appellation to stay afloat and compete, growers started switching to Sauvignon blanc. (If you have a chance, the local goat cheese of Sancerre, crottin de Chavignol
is a superb match with Sauvignon Blanc - or any goat cheese.)

As we make our way north and then east along the river, we pass historic Orléans, a witness to the final years of the Hundred Years War. It was Jeanne d’Arc who hailed from Lorraine in the east. It was she who inspired hope and rallied the wearied French soldiers to victory against the English. A visionary, her military experience and knowledge were at best rudimentary but her courageous ability to spiritually uplift her people was said to be divine. Captured by the Burgundians after a series of failed attacks, she was handed over to the English and put to trial as a witch. Charged with heresy, she was sentenced to death and burned at the stake on May 30 1431. Her statue can be found in both Chinon and Orléans and her image imprinted in stained glass in Orléans Cathedral (not to mention in the hearts and imaginations of countless French artists and writers from Ingres to Peguy to the present day).

Touraine. along with neighbouring sub-region, Anjou-Saumur could best be described as the historic heart of the Loire Valley. Here the wine diversity is as beguiling and beautiful as the numerous chateaux and cathedrals that line the river.
Balzac, a gourmand and lover of Loire Valley wines

Touraine is also the home of many famous French writers and poets including François Rabelais, Pierre de Ronsard, Honore de Balzac and Alain-Fournier. It was Balzac who wrote “without Touraine, perhaps I could no longer live”. He based one of his most famous novels, Eugenie Grandet in his native land, a story set amongst the vineyards and political world of the early 19th century.

Touraine is also the home of the most famous castles, including those at Chambord, Langeais, Richelieu, Amboise (said to be the setting for Charles Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty) and Chenonceaux (once home of Catherine d’Medici and Henry II’s mistress, the seductive Diane de Poitiers). This is the France of the Renaissance with its bold turrets, grandiose facades of white stone, gables, high ceilings, tapestries and gardens laid out in geometric forms.

But of course, let’s not forget the wine.

The Touraine appellation, a general one, covers the entire sub-region and one can find wines largely made from Cabernet Franc, Gamay, Chenin and Sauvignon Blanc. The labels are easy to read as they list the variety used to make the wine.

Vouvray is always white, always Chenin Blanc (called Pineau de la Loire in the region and sometimes Steen in South Africa). There are a number of styles depending on the vintage and you can find a sparkling, still or sweet Chenin. Again, it all depends on the year. If a Noble Rot happens, vignernons will decide to make a sweet wine. (Botrytis Cinerea, is a beneficial fungus – thus a ‘noble rot’ - that attacks the grapes, covering them with a gray mold. The mold penetrates the grape’s skin using the berry’s water thus concentrating the sugar, flavour and acid to contribute to a sweeter style of wine). If the harvest is poor, you might find more sparkling wines available. (Many labels will indicate the level of sweetness of the still wines of Vouvray – Sec or Dry, Demi-Sec or Medium Dry, Moelleux or Medium Sweet and Doux or Sweet).

But Chenin, barring the climate or weather, can also be a testy grape. One bunch doesn’t determine the same level of ripeness. Sometimes you can find yourself tasting a few leafy, vegetal elements in the wine. But beyond that, Chenin is ideal for the soft tuffeau (a chalky limestone soil high in calcium) which produces an exquisite wine capable of aging many years. One can expect notes of apple-honey, lush lemon and drops of apricot.

While Vouvray (and Montlouis across the river) focus on Chenin, Chinon and Bourgueil, including Saint-Nicholas de Bourgeuil are solely red wines (the suffix ‘euil’ comes from the Gallic ialos, meaning ‘a clearing in a primeval forest’). Here Cabernet Franc is king (with a little Cabernet Sauvignon thrown in with the Chinon). Chinon is considered the softest, the most elegant but, to be honest, all wines are perfect if you find yourself in a Paris bistro in the summer. When served lightly chilled, this delicious blanket of red raspberry fruit, violets and herbs becomes a delectable cool river of pleasure on your palate. (Although some wine aficionados swear Bourgeuil is more strawberry and Chinon more raspberry…nonetheless…).

The Loire is not only famous for wines but for the production of primeurs, early veggies that appear two to three weeks before those cultivated near Paris. Leaving Touraine, the land of asperges et haricots (asparagus and beans), we enter the realm of Anjou where les oignons et les echalots (onions and shallots) grow, not to mention artichouts (artichokes) in nearby Angers.

The climate also changes the further west we sail. As Bourgueil and Chinon AOC disappear behind us in the sun, we encounter a milder, more maritime climate. Here the temperatures are less extreme in winter and summer, more humid to some degree (but not nearly as damp as Nantais).

Saumur is our first stop. Here the wines are either white (Chenin Blanc), red (Cabernet Franc as in the case of Saumur-Champigny) or rosé.

Saumur is also famous for the Loire’s top sparkling wines. They are made in the traditional method of Champagne and can be a blend of Chenin Blanc with Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc (by law seven varieties can be used in total including Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Gamay, Pinot Noir, Côt [another name for Malbec], Pineau d’aunis and Grolleau – but such a blend is rare).

The vines grow on the famous tuffeau. In the time of François I, the limestone was easily quarried and used to make decoration for the Renaissance châteaux by skilled masons. Saumur is also known for its mushrooms – 75% of them are grown here (about three tonnes are picked daily around Saumur, many grown in the very damp caves that provided quarry to those very châteaux of the Loire).

Surrounding Saumur to the north, south and east, is Anjou. Here we find the fertile plains of the Loire and its tributaries which enjoys the title of ‘le jardin du France’.

In the Middle Ages, the town of Angers in Black Anjou (named for the black schist of the region) was one of the capitals of the Plantagenet empire, linking England and France. In those days, what we know of as ‘France’ consisted of land surrounding Paris. The French at that time were engaged in conflicts with the English and the Burgundians. Only until the reign of Louis XI in the 15th century did the country take the familiar shape we know today. (Louix XI once quipped he drove the English “out by force of venison pies and good wines” when really he wined, dined and paid off Edward IV - considered a feeble king - with 50,000 crowns).

The appellation of Anjou is quite broad and like Saumur, also includes red, white and rosé wines. Chenin Blanc is the predominant white and Cabernet Franc the red. Grolleau, (said to be named after a black bird), is the ‘workhorse’ grape producing thin, acidic wines of red fruit.

The roses are perhaps the most well-known. You can find a simple, medium sweet as in the case of Rosé d’Anjou, a blend of Grolleau with five other varieties, including Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon; a Rosé cabernet D’Anjou, a blend of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon; and a Rosé de Loire, a blended, light fruity wine of pronounced cherry flavours.

Before we sail on, let us not forget Coteaux du Layon and Savennières. The most seductive, delightful and affordable of sweet wines outside of Sauternes and Bordeaux are those from the former while the most exquisite, exceptional and age-worthy whites outside of Vouvray are found in the latter. Both utilize the greatness of the Chenin Blanc grape.

As we near the Atlantic, we find the climate cools, the scenery changes, the houses have a quaint maritime feel, its stone facades gently scathed by decades of salted, ocean winds and rainstorms. Here the river deepens and the sky spreads out, vast and solemn. There are fishing boats along the coast, quiet lanes in the towns.

This is the land of Brittany and Muscadet is its vineyard.

Made from the Melon de Bourgogne variety, Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine (named for the small Sèvre and Maine Rivers that run through the district), ‘casts its pale golden glow over the purple of lobster and the pearl of oysters’ as one French critic put it. It is a wine ideal with seafood, perfectly matched. Hugh Johnson, British wine writer notes there is even a suggestion of seaweed in the wine but this shouldn’t deter you. The wines are tangy lemon with a yeasty background. Muscadet is made on its lees (sur lie). Before bottling, these wondrous whites stayed in contact with the yeast lees for several months before being bottled.

Muscadet is the wine to end our journey, a wine mirroring the sea itself.

Asimov, Eric, “The Pour” Didier Dagueneau Killed in Plane Crash, September 18, 2008 – New York Times
Bailey, Rosemary, Insight Guides: Loire Valley, APA Publications, Singapore, 1991.
Lynch, Kermit, Adventures on the Wine Route. Farrar Straus Geroux, New York, 1988.
Johnson, Hugh, A Life Uncorked. Weidenfeld & Niolson, London, 2005.
Johnson, Hugh and Jancis Robinson, World Atlas of Wine. Mitchell Beazley, London, 2001.
MacNeil, Karen, The Wine Bible. Workman Publishing Company Inc. New York, 2001
Myhill, Henry, The Loire Valley. Faber and Faber, London, 1978.
Palmer, Hugh (with James Bentley), The Most Beautiful Villages of the Loire. Thames and Hudson, London, 2001.
Robinson, Jancis, The Oxford Companion to Wine. Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, 2003.
Seward, Desmond, Monks and Wine. Mitchell Beazley, London, 1979.
Styles, Oliver, Didier Daueneau – Decanter Interview, January 21, 2008 – Decanter Archive


Vega Sicilia

Jul 20, 2009

There is a landscape in this glass
Fallen earth

Diving past my lips
Anchored on
The warm plain of
My tongue
Sun-dusted trees
And cool nights.

There is a desert
A lonely summer
Singeing the fingertips
Of white soil.
Naked heights
Of slopes
Where the nectar sleeps
In bunches.

The night is long
Wavering into memories
Long ago armies,
El Cid standing guard
An ancient
Watchman from the
Other world,
While below,
Wearing a frayed gown,
A woman runs to
Meet the one she loves

We are searching for ghosts.

These vines
Standing crucified
Under a sky rising
Swimmer drenched
With stars.

And this woman,
These castles with their
Old men smoking
Waiting in courtyards
After the harvest
Fill the air, their rugged
Cheeks and her open
Eyes aching with fright
All of them imparting more
Questions, more far
Away wonder and pleas.

The man she loved was
Once a child and in a
Bed not too far away
In time, he had
A nightmare,
The old god
Run through, torn to shreds
Limb by limb
Like his vines
How his sister returned
With his bleeding heart,

Where did they plant the
First god?

Where is her lover?
Her footsteps swallowed
By the road,
Other armies came and
The old men shuffle
Off the night

The far scent
Of those hours, the layer
Of twin worlds, past and
Present emanating in
Black circles
Resting in
my glass.

- Robert Broerse [July 20, 2009]


Wine BLAHging with Carlito Caz'zate - Wine Personalities

I’ve been reading Roberto’s entries and he’s not half bad. I gotta admit, he knows his stuff. But what is all this poetry and waxing pretty about grapes? Come on, wine is wine, right? I like a beautiful bottle like the next guy. Barolo or Barbaresco, yeah, I’ll buy them and drink them but you won’t hear me talking silly. They pass through me, they come out the other end, it was beautiful for what its worth so what’s the big deal?

And don’t get me wrong, I love my opera and poetry (that’s one thing Roberto and I have in common besides wine) but there is no ‘svelte echo of licorice’ here or ‘gamey chocolate heaven’ going on when I take a whiff or sip. No way. Screw that.

Wine tastes good; I love a good bouquet. So here’s what I have to say about some wines. (I am going to borrow a page from Roberto though - check out his June entry on The Cinderella Story of Carmenere - and I hope he’s honored - if not, his loss.)

My pal believes wines have personalities. Sometimes you like a wine because, hey, you’re in the mood. But personality? For me, Carlito, it’s more like characters in my life and some I’ve just read about. (Yeah, dufus, I’ve picked up a book now and again…) Here’s how I see the famous wines of the world.

Barolo - is the wine version of your drunken uncle at the family reunion. He’s a miserable bastard, smells like tar and roses because of some cologne he’s been wearing for years and smokes like a chimney. Once he’s stewed, don’t even bother. He ferments, then bitches about his ex-wife. But give him a couple hours away from the bottle, then you can hack him. Before that, he’ll rip your teeth out. Still, a beautiful guy and God love him.

Barbaresco - is the aunt version of your drunken uncle but tends to take a nap after she’s had a bit too much to drink. Less miserable, too. She’s good for a couple of hours, likes to show you embarrassing pictures of your cousins. She’s a lot of fun and still pretty in an older-aunt kind of way, sophisticated but sometimes ornery.

Bordeaux - is the guy you knew in high school who was the class president. A jock, too and tends to be an ass to be around. And the sad thing is, you know, he got successful after school so you kind of hate him even more because if he’d screwed up you‘d feel for him but feel better about yourself. He’s the lawyer at your high school reunion. The women love him but the ironic thing is – sorry ladies - he’s gay and only goes home with rich British and American guys, usually from London and New York. (Hey, I feel better about that…)

Burgundy (red) - is a cranky old man who likes to cook. (He is a good cook but not better than ma’s). He’ll recite lines of Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Verlaine, whoever the hell they are, and he’ll talk about beautiful memories of some girl he loved – and lost - in Lyon. Like the way her blonde hair fell on her shoulders, her sun-burned cheeks, and the wild lavender smell of her skin. Watch out, he might start crying so get this poor old fart a tissue. You’ll spend hours with Burgundy and you won’t forget him.

Burgundy (white) - is a cougar. She’s on the prowl, wants only young men and likes to climb trees. Loves to watch Sean Connery in the old James Bond films. Give her a martini and she wants to go dancing. She can smell like peaches and honey or she can be steely. When she goes swimming, this crazy bitch doesn’t wear a bathing suit.

Napa Valley Cabernet - is the famous actress that won’t come out of her trailer. Throw money at her and give her time, she might get going. She likes to think she’s European because she uses a cigarette holder, but she’s not. She’s usually from Iowa or Michigan and only has status because of the company she keeps. Someday, she might have the class of a European but for now, she’s good at being beautiful and nice to look at in a bikini, but that’s as deep as she goes. Throw more money at her and she can act her way out of a paper bag.

California Chardonnay – You ever see a fancy car or a big SUV with a blonde chick in the passenger seat? That’s California Chardonnay. Every rich guy has to have the pretty token girl on his arm (lots of silly-cone here, if you know what I mean). She’s over-tanned, she’s got lips like a trout and she shouldn’t talk much because she’ll embarrass herself and the company she keeps. Not much upstairs but you still gotta have her.

German Riesling – (I know this is Roberto’s favourite wine so I’ll go easy.) Yeah… Actually, I’m not going to say a thing. I’m already on thin ice. Maybe next time when’s he not looking.

Barossa Shiraz - Imagine what would happen if a Frenchman from the Rhone Valley went to Australia and learned to surf. He’s the body builder/carpenter, the easy-going guy with the tan. He’s smart, sophisticated but rustic, too. He’s alright. The women love him and he’s not gay. Trouble is, he doesn’t know how to use spices so he just dashes black pepper over everything (and I mean, everything) he bar-b-ques and cooks. He also likes to eat blackberries picked from the bushes (all part of his ploy to get women thinking he’s sensitive).

New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc – is the girl you knew in college who spent a year abroad in France but when she came back, pretended to be more French than the French. She’s really pretty, a little over-the-top, talks louder than your friends, likes salads and when she pronounces words like resume or déjà vu, she squeezes the heck out of her vowels. And oh yeah, she really, really likes green peppers. (I mean what is that all about?)

What am I forgetting… oh yeah…

Port – is the rich uncle you never see, except at Christmas. He always brings everyone too much chocolate but can be cheap, too. He’ll buy you a nice sweater but won’t give you money. He’s been everywhere and loves Britain, even pretends to be British and speaks with a weird accent you can’t figure out. You can only take so much of him before you get a headache.

Sherry – is the rich aunt who pretends to be poor. When you go to her house she offers you almonds and sometimes she smells like nail-polisher remover. You see old pictures of her around her house. Also pictures of Spain, Italy, England, the places she’s traveled. God, she looked like Sophia Loren and you think in some sick twisted way, if I was twenty when she was twenty, yeah… no… I won’t say it. But yeah, I’d get with her.

And oh, I can’t forget…

Chianti – Do you remember the girl in high school that slept with everyone (there are more of these at a Catholic high school)? But you know what, she’s still hot, she’s divorced, pulled herself together and living the good life, here, there, everywhere. She’s my kind of girl. She’s got standards now, so watch it. She’ll still take you for a ride if you’re not looking. A lot of fire under that hood. You can take her to Paris or the pizzeria; she’ll wear sneakers to the beach or stilettos to the opera. She’s a wine for all seasons and all loves.

See you next time. Maybe.



Wine Politics - "What's the score?" Rating Wines

Jul 15, 2009

If you are new to the world of wine and find yourself in a wine shop or a liquor store, you might notice what we call in the industry, ‘shelf talkers’ - little tags that basically talk about the wine.

A few lines long, you might read, “soft, blackberry fruit, hints of smoke and earth” or “crisp, green lime flavours matched with charming nuances of apple” or something to that affect.

And there, right below the ‘purple prose’ (wine writing) you’ll see a few scores usually written in bold:

89 Points Wine Spectator
90 Points Robert Parker, The Wine Advocate
95 Points Steven Tanzer, International Wine Cellar
89 Points Wine Access

When it comes to a bottle of wine, it’s the price, those very numbers that are extracted from our wallets as bills and cents or digits in our bank account that matter (sometimes the alcohol content as well – Australian and California wines can get as high 16% abv). But for many wine aficionados, merchants, buyers and collectors, the points are everything and this can also affect the price.

We could blame it on Robert Parker. Back in the last century, about 1983, he predicted that the Bordeaux vintage of ’82 was a must-have for wine merchants and buyers. When his prediction paid off, everyone turned to The Wine Advocate. Inside the pages of this humble but confident magazine, wine buyers found only tasting notes and scores. There wasn’t a hint of advertising. Still is. The periodical is as bare as a philosophical quarterly or a university medical journal.

When Parker started out, he wanted to be the consumer’s guide to wine; no frills, no fuss. Reading through American and British magazines and newspapers, he grew sick and tired of wine journalists who had been wined and dined by agencies and wineries. (Apparently there was one critic who every time he visited a winery, left the trunk of his car open in the event that when he came back, there would be cases waiting for him.) Their reviews were a matter of ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’.

Parker believed in a democratic approach. (The 1970s was the time of Ralph Nader and consumer advocacy.) Parker was passionate and knew enough about his own tastes to recommend a wine and be honest. Having been to France, he was, perhaps, no different than other wine critics. (In the 1960s and 1970s, wine journalism was in its infancy. Many writers had little or no training. When Jancis Robinson started out, she had been working in the travel business and like many, took courses here and there while writing wine articles over the years.)

Featured on page 2 of the first issue, one could find Parker’s rating system. A wine rated below 64 was “to be avoided”; a 60-64 rating had “noticeable flaws”; 65-74 meant the wines was “average”; 75-79 you could expect “above average”; 80-89 meant you had a “very good wine”; 90-95 was “outstanding” and 96-100, “extraordinary” (The Emperor of Wine)

Rating a wine was not new. In 1855 the French classified their Médoc (an important sub-region of Bordeaux) in response to a request from Napoleon III’s Paris Expo of the same year. Organized into five tiers or growths, these 61 chateaux have remained lodged into the upper class minds of wine drinkers for over 125 years. They have also remained unchanged. (There was an adjustment in the twentieth century. Baron Philippe de Rothschild had simply refused to be a second growth in this glamorized popularity contest and demanded to be first. After petitioning for most of his life, his wish was granted in 1973 and he died happily in 1988 – who says nothing changes after high school?) Graves established a ranking system in 1953 followed by St.-Emilion in 1955 but they have nowhere near the cache that the 1855 system has.

Like the Médoc classification system (or ‘caste’ system notes Edward Hyam in the dated but still quite useful book on French wine country, Vin – “for in a class system it is possible for the lower classes to work their way into the higher”), Robert Parker’s scoring was the first and has continued to be the most important. Just as we think Coke before Pepsi, Parker’s ratings are foremost in the minds of wine buyers. After Parker, came Wine Spectator. Marvin Shanken paid $40,000 for the failing San Diego-based tabloid and turned it into the consumer giant it is today, adopting the 100-point rating system in 1985. (A famous exchange between Parker and Shanken. “What do you think of me stealing your 100-point system?” Parker: “What difference does it make? You give everything 90 points anyway.” Shanken: “We’re going to put you out of business” and of course that never happened. [The Emperor of Taste])

The trouble with Parker is that he became the very thing he fought against. He didn’t believe in the Classification of 1855. If he felt a wine was poor, he said so. He called the 1973 Bordeaux vintage ‘terrible’.

Following his major prediction of ’83, Parker became the critic that made a fledgling winery overnight. If Parker scored your wine 90+, expect hundreds of phone calls and faxes the next morning.

Slowly, over the years, cult wineries, such as Screaming Eagle ‘blossomed’ out of Parker’s modern day rating system. In 1997 the said winery of Napa Valley received a 100-points for their Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine was initially priced at $125.00. At an auction that same year following the rating, the wine sold for $2500. So, in a sense, like the Classification system of 1855, Parker has become an icon of the wealthy wine drinking crowd, many of whom are slavish followers of his.

Robert Parker is more of a legend than a man. But he is also very American with very-American taste. Following the wines he rates, you can see a preference for bold, meaty, full-bodied wine. Just as the majority of the American viewing public wants sex and violence, dumbed-down television like American Idol and blockbuster movies following the Jerry Bruckheimer-Michael Bay formula (which is just blow everything up – really…), Parker’s wine are for those who could care less about subtlety.

This is the great tragedy of the wine world. The intentions were good, no one ever plans to change the world (although Gary Vaynerchuk of claims he is and I admire his fascination for variety and hesitation on scoring) and no one plans to become a satire of their own success. Over the years, the wines that received the highest points received the biggest returns. Scores are everything. Wineries took notice and the result has been a great gluttonous surge of mainstream wine, all of them sharing the same tendency to be robust and full-bodied.

Have you ever considered walking into an art gallery and scoring a painting or a sculpture? No, not really, right?

But we do rate movies, we give them a thumbs up or down, four stars, three stars, we award them Oscars and Golden Globes. The same with CDs. They have a rating system that isn’t perfect, but usually the reviewer has had some experience with the genre of music they are rating. The same with the movie critic. Many have gone to school, watched countless films, know the clichés, understand the symbolism.

We can sit down with friends and watch a film. We will see the same images on the screen but our perceptions might vary, some of us focusing on different characters and recalling different scenes. We can go back to that film time and time again, just as we can listen and re-listen to a CD, judging the merits of a particular artist’s use of words and overall musical talents.

Wine is different and so is the wine world. Existing somewhere between categories of art and the film industry, relying half on the elements and half on human beings, it is a matter of what I would like to call ‘calculated guess-work’ based on experience. There is a science to it, of course, but we cannot control the winds, the sun and the rain, can we?

From wine makers to critics, every wine is unique just as every palate is subjective and personal. Whereas what we see and hear can often be agreed upon, what we taste and smell is another matter. We can pick up a novel and re-read a passage that has layers of symbols yet how do we know while drinking a certain wine we are picking up the same flavours, the same nuances as our neighbor? We can direct others to certain aromas but how certain are we? It is a mystery at times.

The rating system is flawed because few critics can agree on wine. While Parker might rate a Rioja 90 points, Stephen Tanzer might give 87. In Australia, James Halliday might give an Eden Valley Riesling 90 points whereas a fellow wine critic might shake his head and go 85 points. Shots in the dark. There is no consistency. (With something as simple as a table, I’m sure we can all agree on the measurements plus or minus a fraction of an inch or metre…)

Points are often the substitute for description but shouldn’t be. Kermit Lynch, a famous California wine importer in his book, Adventures on the Wine Route balks at the idea of judging and scoring a wine. “Those big rock-‘em-sock-‘em blockbusters perform one function admirably – they win tastings…. Usually such wines give their all in the first whiff and sip…”

Lynch compares two wines, a Château Margaux (considered the finest of Médoc wines in Bordeaux) and a moderately-priced rosé wine from Bandol in the South of France. Which is better? Lynch urges the reader to compare them side by side and award points. The Margaux would most likely win. Now take those two wines to dinner and serve them both with boiled artichoke and rate them once more. “The Margaux is bitter and metallic-tasting, whereas the Bandol rosé stands up and dances like Baryshnikov.”

Lynch’s argument is comically apt when he writes that when “a woman chooses a hat, she does not put it on a goat’s head to judge it”. It’s our palates, he basically says and even if we are beginners, we should be able to rely on our own tastes. Why should we value the ratings of critics who can’t agree on a bunch of numbers they have arbitrarily awarded a wine – a scoring system, I forgot to mention, based on the American high school grade system.

I agree with Lynch that a wine should be judged in the environment in which it is tasted and that environment includes the company you keep, the food you eat and quite simply on one’s mood.

The other flaw of rating a wine is that many times a wine will be tasted and scored in sequence of other wines. Have you ever tried to watch two movies in a row? Did you find you paid more attention to the first as opposed to the second?

There is also bottle variation (see Vino Variations June 2009) as much as the temperature of wine served, the time of day, the time when the bottle was opened. Who is to say that a certain wine should be opened this year as opposed to next? Or that one? Can one bottle represent the entire vintage? Should the wine be decanted? How do you score a wine when you’re only guessing when is the right time to taste it?

The scoring system is little more than an over-inflated tool. Some might call it a necessary evil. I find it foolish. There are many flaws and many egos. As much as it forewarns consumers and gives them some idea of quality, it keeps us from branching out and exploring the un-scored wines or the less than 90 pointers. By creating a comfort zone and drinking the high scoring wine, we force the market to appease us and therefore mainstream becomes our only means of drinking wine (just as we keep coming back to boring Bruckheimer-Bay-like films). We’re not going to eat steak everyday so why do we need beefy big wines with higher alcohol (and a lot of wineries, especially in France have made their wines with higher alcohol content, often as a result of adding sugar to increase the percentage)?

I have to admit, I admire the Canadian magazine Vines for using the star system which is much closer to what I learned through Wine Studies Education Trust. Through my course work, we learned to judge wines based on appearance, nose and palate, all contributing to a final assessment. Was the wine Poor? Acceptable? Good? Outstanding or Extraordinary?

But again, we tasted the wine for the sake of tasting it, not truly enjoying it with a meal. If everyone is unique, if all wines are unique, then why do we need high scoring wines to appear at our table in a world of diversity? The mainstream is an excuse not to think and explore – we undermine our own preferences. Popularity contests have nothing to do with taste and individuality.

I don’t think I’d trust a goat to wear my hat.

Hyams, Edward, Vin: The Wine Country of France, Newnes, London, 1959.
Lynch, Kermit, Adventures on the Wine Route. Farrar Straus Geroux, New York, 1988.
McCoy, Elin, The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M.Parker, Jr., and the Reign of American Taste, Harper Perennial, New York, 2005.
Robinson, Jancis, Tasting Pleasure. Penguin Press, New York, 1999.
Robinson, Jancis, The Oxford Companion to Wine. Oxford, London, 2003.


France - Wine Hub for the World

Jul 13, 2009

Burgundian slope

What does the vineyard do to me?... What would heaven do to me if heaven were empty?
- Alphonse de Lemartine

The beautiful thing about wine is often just drinking wine. And the beautiful thing about learning about wine is also, well… you know… drinking it. Or, tasting wine (less fun sometimes because this might involve spitting).

My journey began with beer and harder spirits – gin and Canadian Rye still being my two favourites. Scotch is not for me.

I used to enjoy a nice, refreshing lager on a summer day. Sometimes a deep, dark ale. But over time, I found wine more fascinating. I ventured first into the world of whites. Living in Victoria and then North Vancouver, in British Columbia, I began to drink Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris from the Okanagan Valley, Sumac Ridge, Tinhorn Creek, and Grey Monk being three of my favorite producers. Soon enough I discovered that Alsace, in Eastern France right on the German border, is the home of both these varieties.

I started putting a puzzle together. Every time I learned about a different grape, I would try to source its origin in Europe.

Soon a bigger picture was revealed. I began to see France as the hub of a greater world wine-wheel, with different spokes (grapes) finding homes in different countries.

CABERNET SAUVIGNONBordeaux – left bank of the river Gironde, from Médoc in the north down to Graves. Cabernet is the superstar grape of the wine world, used to make the world’s most brilliant and expensive wines. Names such as, Lafite-Rothschild, Mouton Rothschild, Château Haut-Brion and Château Margaux are all synonymous with Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated wines (left-bank Bordeaux – i.e. Médoc, Haut Médoc - wines are blends which include Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdo and Malbec).

Where else and what to expect - You can find Cabernet Sauvignon literally everywhere but the best places after France are California (Napa Valley), Chile (Central Valley, including the Maipo, Maule Valleys), Australia in the region of Coonawarra in the state of South Australia. In South Africa, New Zealand and Argentina you’ll find some good Cabernet Sauvignon wine, either as a varietal (single variety) or a blend. Cabernet is also used to make excellent blends in Tuscany, Italy.

But how do you like your Cabernet? If you like big black fruit, most will satisfy but there are slight variations. California is for you if you like hints of herbal sage. In Chile, green pepper. Australia can have interesting notes of eucalyptus. South Africa can be smoky and bold while Argentina is often rich. New Zealand, like Bordeaux has a bit more acidity and a finer body, often blended with Merlot.

CHARDONNAYBurgundy – from Chablis down through Maconnais. Where Cabernet is the King of red, Chardonnay is the great royal white. In France, especially in Burgundy, the grape is rarely listed on the bottle. Famous vineyards of Burgundy include “Le Montrachet” where bottles fetch hefty high prices. You’ll find Chardonnay in Champagne where it is either used to make blancs de blancs (white from white) or blended with Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir.

Where else and what to expect - Chardonnay, also like Cabernet Sauvignon, can be found in most wine-producing countries. But unlike the red grape, it is more of a chameleon. In Chablis of northern Burgundy, Chardonnay is often mineral on the palate with notes of green fruit. Further South in Burgundy (Côte de Beaune, Mâcon), it is more toasty, buttery like a good apple pie. When it sees little oak in such villages as Saint-Veran, there is more of an apricot and peach touch. In Australia, the best un-oaked Chardonnays often have a pineapple-tropical flavour. California Chardonnay is often heavily oaked, meaning more butter and toffee notes (I like to call them ‘butter bombs’) than what you will find in France. Chardonnay labels will often tell you if they are oaked or not.

SAUVIGNON BLANCLoire Valley – Main sites include Sancerre, Puilly-sur-Loire and Touraine. Sauvignon Blanc is easily distinguished compared to Chardonnay. The grape has pungent, bright aromas of lime and lemon with asparagus and grassy green pepper. Pouilly-Fumé (fumé = smoke in French), there is a hint of flint that gives the wine a gunpowder touch.

Where else and what to expect - By far the most famous Sauvignon Blanc wine-producing country is New Zealand. In 1985, Cloudy Bay appeared on the wine scene and took the world by storm. Since then, varietal Sauvignon Blanc has become synonymous with the islands of the Kiwi. As the famous English wine critic and writer Hugh Johnson once wrote, it is Sauvignon Blanc with the ‘volume turned up’. Other places include Chile, in Casablanca and San Antonio Valley where you can find surprising value and delicate lemon and grassy flavours. The grape is also found in South Africa in coastal wine regions (more fig and green fruit) as well as Australia where it is blended with Semillon. In California, some Sauvignon Blancs are oaked which impart a tasty, toasty component. In Spain, it is often blended with Verdejo in the region of Rueda in northern Spain.

SYRAHRhône Valley – Côte-Rôtie in the north down through the Southern Rhône. Northern Rhone Syrahs are often very expensive and sometimes blended with a touch of Viognier, a white grape known for aromas of apricot and peach. There is the black pepper, the hint of Brettanomyces (brett – for short), a yeast found on the grapes and in wines of the Rhône that lend a chicken-coup kind of perfume. These wines are complex and need time in bottle before opening. If you’re impatient (like me) you can find excellent Côtes du Rhône Village wines that are a blend of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre (the latter grapes also known as Garnacha and Monastrell in Spain).

Where else and what to expect - Just as Sauvignon Blanc is synonymous with New Zealand, Shiraz (which is another name for Syrah) is the flagship grape of Australia. The Barossa Valley is the most famous Shiraz growing region. The wines are bursting with big vanilla-rounded black fruit and black pepper. Along the southern coast, where it is noticeably cooler, Adelaide Hills Shiraz often have a white pepper spice to it. California makes excellent Syrahs. In the 1970s and ‘80’s, Cabernet and Chardonnay were all the rage. A group of winemakers, known now as the Rhone Rangers decided to focus on alternatives, Syrah being one of their favoured grapes. Chile also makes excellent Syrah which is similar to the bold California style (although there are some that are more Rhône in style which have a gamey-black pepper to it). In South Africa, it is surpassing Pinotage as the new must-plant grape where the black pepper is softened with blackberries. There is often a smoky quality to the wine, making them ideal with BBQ.

RIESLINGAlsace/South Western Germany – Alsace is on the border of Germany and the region has had a significant German influence (especially in the names like “Schlumberger” which is pronounced with a French feel – i.e. SHLUM-ber-jay). Riesling is Germany’s grape but because the history of the region is intertwined with the legacies of both countries, I placed it here.

You could say there are two styles of Riesling. The German, especially the Mosel version, has a mineral, steely, apple beauty to it you often cannot find in France. These wines I often dub as ‘autumn harvests in a glass’ – drown your nose in the leafy, windy far reaches of vertigo-steep vineyards and cool, steel skies. Elsewhere in Germany, you can expect apricots and melon, sometimes grapefruit. Alsatian Riesling can be off-dry but there is a delicacy to them, a solemn finesse. You can taste the apple but it is more reserved, reticent. Alsace is the place to find dry-style Riesling. Producers like Trimbach and Hugel make solid offerings.

Where else and what to expect -
Riesling is an important grape in Ontario, perhaps the one with the most diverse character. Styles here range from dry to ice wine and Canada has become the go-to place for High Class dessert wines. Green apple, green fruit, honey, petrol, sometimes a bit of peach is what you’ll find in the Niagara Peninsula. Washington and New York State both make excellent Riesling, perhaps closer to the traditional German-style with aromas of petrol, honey and apple harvest. In the Southern Hemisphere, Australia (Eden and Clare Valley) and New Zealand (Wairarapa just north of Martinborough on the North Island) tend to deliver New World dry-Rieslings. These wines are alive with zingy, bright acidity, apple, star fruit and hints of pineapple. Most Southern Hemisphere Rieslings will be typically dry with the off-chance of a hint of sugar.

PINOT NOIRBurgundy, especially, Côte-d'Or, – While Cabernet is blended with four other grapes in left-bank Bordeaux, Burgundy is Pinot Noir. But you wouldn’t just call it a Pinot Noir from Burgundy. Pinot Noir is a vehicle for the expression of Burgundy, one of the many elements that go into making a great bottle. Here, as in many places in France, terroir is the word, more the aura of viticulture that leads to the wonders of vinification. In Burgundy, factors such as soil, slope, exposure, climate, weather, vineyard practices and management all come together to create a wine. For many, red Burgundy is similar to the ecstasy of Saint Teresa in Botticelli’s famous sculpture – it is a religious experience poised with sensuality. The bouquet is a quiet, fading thunderstorm of flowers, earth and red, bright fruit.

Where else and what to expect -
If you venture into Oregon you’ll find the quintessential New World Pinot. These wines are a bit more robust than Burgundian offerings with a delicious dill element that is both aromatic and inviting, not to mention, intriguing. In California, the wines are bigger still. Usually Carneros and other cool climes along the coast will give you the Pinot that has the most finesse but like a WWF wrestler in a tux, they are hefty and muscular. In New Zealand, you can find Burgundian-style Pinot Noir that exhibits more the barnyard, the mulch and red fruit that makes the variety so charismatic. Chile has some beautiful, delicate Pinot Noir along the coast in Leyda and San Antonio. In Australia, Tasmania is considered the best Pinot-producing regions.

And of course, let’s not forget Ontario where the style is reminiscent of Burgundy as well as New Zealand. Ontario Pinot is perfect with salmon, the cherries are light and lovely with a little barnyard beauty.

MERLOTright bank, especially Pomerol and St-Émilion as well as St-Estèphe. Merlot plays a showy second-fiddle to Cabernet Sauvignon in the world of wine. On the right bank in Bordeaux, it comes first followed by Cabernet, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec. It is softer, plummier, with black fruit, blueberry and hints of chocolate and coffee. It is what Oz Clarke calls ‘red without tears’ because the tannins are easier on your palate.

Where else and what to expect - In Italy, especially in Veneto and Toscana you can find varietal Merlot (in the former) and Merlot blended with Sangiovese and Cabernet in Super Tuscan wines (see A Tale of Two Tuscanies June 2009). Veneto is cooler so expect more red fruit and juicier acidity.

In the New World, Merlot has found a beautiful home in both California and Washington. Washington State Merlot exudes black fruit with moody doses of chocolate and coffee. In California, the wines are softer, cozy and with the right oak treatment will have a vanilla character that reminds me of toast and black berry jam. If you like Chile, Merlot is chewy and herbal and might even be blended with Carmenere (see The Cinderella Story of Carmenere June 2009). New Zealand and Australia, you’ll find varietal Merlot or blends with Cabernet and other grapes such as Shiraz/Syrah and Petit Verdot. Here in Ontario, I find the Merlot has a blackberry coffee feel with a deeper darker cocoa element.

France offers beautiful wine but unless you feel comfortable with their wine labels, I suggest starting with varietal wines in the New World. Once you get yourself grounded and can maneuver through the various variety names and aromas, you’ll be on your way. Just think of it as research for your palate.

And you don’t have to spit if you don’t want to.


Spain: The Wines of Old Castile

Jul 8, 2009

Night of Castile;
The poem is spoken,
Or, better, not spoken.
When everyone is sleeping,
I’ll go to the window
- Antonio Machado, from Canciones


It is spring, 711. Tariq ibn Ziyad, a Muslim Umayyad general with a band of some 7000 Berber soldiers is crossing over from northern Africa into Visigoth Spain. The charismatic leader and his troops, under the shadow of the mountain soon to be named in his honor (Gibraltar - gebel = mountain, al-Tar = Tariq)  are about to encounter an army and government weakened by internal corruption - easy prey.

Within several months of the historic landing, the Visigoth presence in Iberaia is dissolved in the wake of Tariq's untimely invastion. By summer, King Roderic falls in the Battle of Guadalete and the Muslim general is made governor of the region, ushering in a new era of Muslim culture, technology and architecture.

For over three hundred years, the Muslims hold control over the vast majority of the Iberian Peninsula and cities such as Cordoba, Toledo and Granada prosper. Fountains, gardens and lanterns adorn the golden streets and beautiful mosques and palaces are erected for the emirs. Men of science, literature, music, mathematics and philosophy practice their esoteric art in libraries and in courts. 

The Muslims conquerors are, for the most part, tolerant people and continually encourage religious freedom. Many Jews rise to prominence and power while a small population of Christians or Mozarabs (‘wannabe Arab’) contribute to this society. In the main, being Muslim simply affords citizens adequate tax breaks, inspiring many converts.

Yet, in the far wet north, another band of exiled Christians cling to the green coastline of present day Galicia, Asturias and Basque country. Their faith can’t be broken by tax incentives nor by what they perceive to be the lax culture of the Muslim-dominated south. After several humiliating defeats by Moorish marauders, these Christians slowly begin to retake the peninsula. From their little Kingdom of Asutrias, a small settlement of Spanish culture, Christians cross south over forbidding mountain ranges (now called the Cordillera Cantábrica) into Northwestern Spain to retrieve what they believe to be their land. 

By the 10th and 11th century, the conquerors, like those they once conquered have begun to grow weak and corrupt. Internal strife breaks down the varied layers of government.

Asturias expands and joins forces with León and then Castile.

Today this territory is known as Old Castile because the reclaimed land south of Madrid became New Castile. 

It was King Alfonso VI, King of Castile and León in the 11th century who took Toledo from the Moors. 

In the 13th Century, King Alfonso X helped solidify the Spanish language so Castilian (mixed with Arabic and Latin) became the vernacular of the north.

By the 15th Century, Old Castile was a thriving centre with a university in Salamanca and the royal court in Burgos. 

In 1469, Isabella, heiress to the throne of Castile, married Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Aragón. Through this union, Castile and Aragón -as well as lands of La Rioja - fell under their control. The capital moved from Burgos to Valladolid (Isabella’s home city). 

The wealth from sacked Moorish cities fell to the nobles.

Observers of history, of western civilization note that wherever there is money and wealth in society, there is bound to be a wine market.

In Old Castile, the wine trade did exceedingly well. Local dukes, bishops, professors and physicians possessed palates that needed pleasing and the nearby vines and merchants served them well.

These wine traditions have endured to this day. “Castilian wines are still made to suit Spanish tastes: powerful, high-strength, full of fruit, with a hint of oak” (The New Spain).

Now, let us take a look at the five wine DOs (Denominación de Origen) of Old Castile

Bierzo is located in the province of León in the far west, bordering on Galicia. John Radford in The New Spain calls it the ‘maverick in the Castilian corral’ for the landscape is a far cry from the dusty, dry, arid slopes of Toro, Cigales, Rueda and Ribera del Duero. This hermetic region (once the location for the headquarters of the Knights Templar) is surrounded by mountains, dwelling in a meditative cocoon of verdant, rolling hills – the Cordillera Cantábrica to the west and north, the Sierra de Cabrera to the south and the Montes de León to the east.

In the time of the Romans, it was a rich, golden landscape. Today it is a coal-mining district although one wouldn’t suspect it by traveling amongst the umber and green mountains.

The most famous variety of the region is Mencía. Wines made from this grape may have notes of leather, cedar, black fruit and barnyard. It is very similar to Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley. They can range from a gentle, medium-bodied offering to robust and vigorous wines of powerful aromas and fruit.

Situated on the Duero River, some 150 km southeast of Bierzo DO, the ancient town of Toro rests on a rocky hilltop. To the north, one can see the swaying fields of golden wheat and the old Roman bridge, bleached by centuries of sun, spanning the river. South of the town, one can find the vineyards where a genetic variation of Tempranillo, the Tinta de Toro grape, is planted.

Here, through different propagation methods and at a higher altitude (600 to 700 metres) than Rioja (400-500), the grapes, now accustomed to the harsh summer days and continental climes, are riper with thicker skins. The result is a full-bodied wine with a noticeably darker fruit flavour.

Not only big in flavour, Toro wines are big in alcohol. Even in the Middle Ages, clerics, kings and students all wanted to get their hands on the heady wines of Toro.

Many of these wines are of incredible value and highly rated by the famous American wine critic, Robert Parker. If you enjoy bold and beautiful wines bursting with earth, smoky blackcurrant and dark cherry, check out the wines of Toro.

As you move eastward along the winding river Duero, you’ll find Rueda, a wine region now famous for its bright, crisp, clean whites.

In the days when Old Castile became the frontier, the defeated Moors, out of a sense of revenge, ravaged and pillaged the area from which they were forced to retreat. This devastated landscape (called Tierra de Nadie - ‘The Land of Nothing’) lay fallow for many dreary decades; however, this time of recuperation brought the soil back to healthy fertility. In the 11th century, King Alfonso VI, ruling from Burgos, issued an edict to his people – if you can work the land, it is yours (the decree accompanied by smaller print, of course).

Verdejo, derived from verdugo or “green shoot” is a grape believed to have been brought from North Africa by the Mozárabs. It became the grape of choice for Old Castile. Jerez, which lay in the hands of the Moors, produced the famous oxidized wine of the region. (Verdejo was a perfect substitute because as soon as the grapes were picked, it oxidized all by itself.)

These wines were eventually designated for the king’s court in the 17th century. In the nineteenth century, phylloxera founds its way in and hit the region hard. During the long replanting period, Jerez reclaimed its place as the fortified wine of choice in Madrid and Rueda faded with the memories of fabled kings and queens. Then the Spanish Civil War struck and Palomino replaced Verdejo due to Franco’s new policies.

The situation looked bleak and foreboding for the Verdejo grape. But thankfully, the world of wine was changing and innovation made its way to Old Castile.

Francisco Hurtado de Améga y Dolagaray (or “Paco” to his friends), director of Marqués de Riscal, consulted his former Professor, Emile Peynaud at the University of Bordeaux. Paco wanted to make a crisp, clean white wine. The two men agreed on Rueda to carry out their project. With the help of modern technology such as stainless-steel vats, cool fermentation, and nitrogen, (an inert gas used to prevent the grapes from oxidizing), they produced the first modern white of Rueda.

If you like New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, you will most likely love Rueda. Some of these wines have a seductive lime-green component with hints of grapefruit and gooseberry. You can find varietal Verdejo as well as blends with Viura (also known as Macebeo in Eastern Spain) and Sauvignon Blanc.

North of Valladolid lies Cigales, a DO that has recently become synonymous with rosados or rosé wines. The region lies between 700 and 800 metres above sea level where large pudding stone rocks literally litter the vineyards. Here the Tempranillo variation is known as Tinto del País and provides the foundations for most reds and is amongst Garnacha Tinta, Verdejo, Viura (aka Macabeo), Palomino, and Albillo in making the rosados.

While walking though the town, tourists may notice what may appear to be monoliths rising out of the ground. “Called luceras, they act as vents, providing fresh air and a little daylight to the cellars situated ten metres or so below ground. Here the temperature never varies, winter or summer” (The New Spain).

Like Toro, Cigales reds are quite beefy and full-bodied. They are the perfect BBQ wine during the summer and pair extremely well with steak.

Our final stop is one of the most famous and - one might even say - the crown of Old Castile. Lying at 750-900 metres above sea level, Ribera Del Duero is the place where the finest Tempranillo wines are made. The summer suns are hot but the nights are cool, giving the grape an adequate period for growth and rest. This is incredibly beneficial for the grapes. In a hotter region like Toro, the vine is feeding off the soil 24/7, while here, the vine can close its eyes at night and open them during the day, thus not absorbing nutrients too fast. And you can taste the difference. Toro often produces full-bodied, hefty wines whereas Ribera del Duero’s output is much more lush, mature and deeper. It is the difference between a passionate, stubborn, overzealous wine and a staid, strong, confident, patient older one.

Of the many bodegas found here, Vega Sicilia is the historic jewel of the DO. In the 1860s, Don Eloy Lecanda Chaves came back from Bordeaux with a few French winemaking tricks up his sleeve. Like his two famous peers, Luciano de Murrieta García-Lemone (later Marqués de Murrieta) and Don Camilo Hurtado de Amexage, the Marqués de Riscal (see my Rioja: The Bordeaux of Spain June 2009) he decided to plant French varieties and age his wines in oak to create a French style of wine.

Through trial and error, he found the local grape variety, Tinto del País (aka Tempranillo), fared much better than the French varieties he had imported. He inspired fellow grape growers and winemakers to follow his lead.

After a long period of quality stagnation that began in the early twentieth century, Vega Sicilia and another famous bodega, Pesquera, raised the standard by balancing modern technology with craftsmanship in the late 1970s and ‘80s.

Visiting Ribera del Duero, one will be taken aback at the vineyards which appear as white as snow. The soil is rich in gypsum and trace elements but chalk is what gives them their snowy appearance.

Wines from Ribera del Duero can run anywhere between $12 to $700.00 in our Canadian market. In the higher echelons, of course, is the Vega Sicilia’s Gran Unico Reserva, a wine released after ten years of aging, if not more.

Not too long ago I had a chance to try the 1996. It had to be the closest thing to an out-of-body experience. From the blackberry fruit to the ashes, to the roses and blueberries, I felt like I’d tasted not a wine but the essence of an unforgettable place. (I even wrote a poem about the experience which I might share in a future entry.)

Spain, along with the Chilean and Argentine offerings, gives the best value for the money. Check your Spanish wine section for any of these wines. These DOs of Old Castile are quintessentially Spanish.

Believe me, you won’t be disappointed.

Crow, John Armstrong, Spain: The Root and The Flower, Berkley, University of
California Press, 1985.
Jeff, Julian, The Wines of Spain. Mitchell Beazley, London, 2006.
Lowney, Chris, A Vanished World: Medieval Spain’s Golden Age of Enlightenment. New York, Free Press, 2005.
MacNeil, Karen, The Wine Bible. Workman Publishing Company Inc. New York, 2001
Menocal, Rosa Maria, The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. Boston, Little Brown, 2002
Radford, John, The New Spain. Mitchell Beazley, London, 2007.


Wine and Words: Books for Imbibers

Jul 5, 2009

During an enlightening lecture on Martin Heidegger, (a famous German existentialist philosopher), our professor profoundly noted that what you devote your time to is, in fact, a reflection of who you are.

Years later I applied his profundity to my own life and I can confidently if not conclusively say I am a wino.

I should rephrase that - a learned wino.

And you can be one, too.

It does engage a fair bit of one's time to learn about the eternal ins and outs of wine. But the knowledge isn’t esoteric. Learning about wine has become increasingly easier, far more than in previous decades.

I am voracious reader and I love a good book so let’s start with some of the best and more accessible texts on wine.

If I had to recommend two essential works, it would have to be Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Complete Wine Course and Karen MacNeil’s The Wine Bible. Both are widely available and both are highly readable.

Kevin Zraly’s book has sold 3 million copies. Over 19,000 students have eagerly attended his Windows on the World Wine School. He is perhaps the most famous wine educator in the United States.

Zraly’s book is a great coffee table volume. It is something you can pick up, peruse and put down on any given occasion, whether you have an hour or a few minutes. He begins with the basics of sensory wine appreciation then moves on towards a thorough breakdown of the world's greatest wine regions of the world. You can start just about anywhere in his book.

Karen MacNeil is the United States’ answer to Jancis Robinson, famed British wine critic and editor of The Oxford Companion to Wine. Like Jancis, she has hosted an award-winning televised wine program and has written numerous articles for The New York Times, Food & Wine and Wine Spectator.

The Wine Bible really is the Bible to consult in all matter relating to wine. You can take it anywhere, whereas Windows on the World is something you will treat with respect, lay down in plain and envious sight for guests to admire. I’ve watched colleagues reread, highlight and post-it note MacNeil’s book nearly to wearied shreds and tatters. Like a university text (but more fun), it is chock-a-block full of fascinating wine details on wine regions and the cultural nuances of the countries she discusses. This is the book you decisively lug along on your wine-buying excursions. It travels well, a sort of Lonely Planet for wine enthusiasts.

It’s summer time so I have to recommend what another university prof called bathtub reads (although he once dubbed Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time a bathtub read – far from it). You will also know them as ‘beach reads’.

I am a patriotic Canadian so I urge everyone to pick up a copy of Ottawa-native Natalie MacLean’s Red, White and Drunk All Over. This book is pure pleasure. You can read this at the beach (but I highly recommend the bathtub so you can have a glass of wine with your ‘bubbly’).

MacLean’s prose is fervent, fun and unpretentious. Her passion for wine is so contagious you’ll want to visit Burgundy and Italy and host your own tasting parties. Also, check out her website, Nat Decants at

If you’re looking for a little history and another leisurely read, I recommend Wine and War: The French, The Nazis and the Battle for France's Greatest Treasure by Donald and Petie Kladstrup. This volume is ideal for wine lovers who also can’t get enough of the History Channel. You’ll learn how the French sabotaged German trains, outsmarted Nazi wine dealers and hid their most precious vintages. This book is so fascinating and fabulous, non-wine lovers might just get the wine bug after finishing it. (Another Kladstrup tome to take to the beach: Champagne: How The World’s Most Glamorous Wine Triumphed Over War and Hard Time is another page-turner you shouldn’t miss.)

The most well-respected wine journal is Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate. Parker fell in love with wine while on a trip to France to visit his college girlfriend. Back in the States, he graduated, practiced law but on the side began to devote himself to writing what he considered a ‘democratic’ wine magazine. He left the law to focus on wine criticism shortly after subscriptions to his journal sky-rocketed in the early 80s.

Whereas Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast and most wine magazines are inundated with advertisements, Parker’s periodical remains impeccably bare. He is also on the web at

I mention Parker with some trepidation. The man’s nose and palate are incredible and he has been known to name a wine after a blind tasting (for more details on Parker's life: Elin McCoy’s The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker J., and the Reign of American Taste) but there is a dark side to his influence. You will get to know the trends and wine imbibing fashions of our time simply because he creates them. Wine producers throughout the world have been known to doctor wines to make them more appealing to Parker's palate. If you notice that the majority of top-selling and expensive wines are big, lush ‘fruit-bombs’ (colloquial phrase referring to rich concentrated flavours) it is because Parker has awarded them 90+ points (the equivalent of getting an A in high school). The point system was devised by him and is imitated by many international wine critics.

I will also recommend Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast but only for their articles. It is not that I don’t trust their scoring and recommendations, it’s just that the magazines are American publications and some of the wines they rate aren’t available in Canada. Instead, I urge Canadian wine aficionados to turn to Wine Access and Vines. Both focus on Canadian content as well as international. The articles are informative, fun, there are plenty of good recipes and tips while the wines they score are easily available in most major cities and priced conveniently in Canadian dollars.

Besides me, you can get on YouTube and type in the name of a variety or a region. Google or Wiki your favourite grapes.

If you’re looking for something more intense and in your face, look no further than

GaryVaynerchuk, like Parker, is another influential figure. What is it about Americans? When they take on something, their presence is huge just as as their celebrities are bigger than life. Vaynerchuk is what would happen if a frat boy got hooked on wine and started to educate his friends about it. He is a walking exclamation mark. Whereas British wine critics Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson are known for their subtlety, their very English evocations of wine, Vaynerchuk’s online show is over the top.

But he has true enthusiasm for what he does. Born in the former USSR, his family emigrated to New Jersey in the late 1970s. Vaynerchuk grew up around wine and became co-owner and Director of Operations at his father’s Wine Library store. He doesn’t describe wine in typical fashion – again think frat boy – but instead uses words like ‘baseball glove’ to describe a rustic French wine or ‘oak monster’ when a wine has been heavily treated with wood. He calls his program The Thunder Show and refers to his fans as ‘Vayniacs’ and the ‘Vayner Nation’. He has also been featured on Conan O’Brien and Ellen.

You’ll learn a lot from Vaynerchuk. He’s crazy, fun and definitely approachable and best of all, he likes to explore all the nooks and crannies of the wine world. You’ll either love him or hate him. He is definitely influential and another great place to start. (UPDATE: Vaynerchuk has started another internet wine education program called the The Daily Grape after completing his thousandth episode of Wine Library.)

These are just a few places to begin. There are classes you can take, either through Wine & Spirit Education Trust or the International Sommelier Guild. If you’re looking at something much more casual then continuing and general education classes at your local universities and colleges these two are the way to go.

Once you get going, you’ll learn more and suddenly realize you can’t stop.

Every bottle is a journey for your palate. But it’s nice to be prepared.

This wino is still learning.

A drop of wine's inscribed upon your lips.
Adam Jagajewski 'Little Waltz'

Windows on the World Wine Course – Kevin Zraly
The Wine Bible – Karen MacNeil
Red, White and Drunk All Over – Natalie MacLean
Wine and War: The French, The Nazis and the Battle for France’s Greatest Treasure - Donald and Petie Kladstrup
Champagne: How The World’s Most Glamorous Wine Triumphed Over War and Hard Time – Donald and Petie Kladstrup
The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr., and the Reign of American Taste – Elin McCoy

The Wine Advocate (US) Wine Spectator (US) Wine Enthusiast (US)
Vines (CAN) Wine Access (CAN)


About This Blog

My focus is mainly on wine culture, history and education. I love the stories behind wine - the people, places and the regional personalities of the wine-countries around the world.

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