Ontario – Wandering the Wine Route: Crown Bench Estates

Oct 26, 2009

At the very end of Aberdeen Road is another world. The air is fresh, the busy roads and highways of cities have disappeared. You’ll find vineyards and a two-storey house. Walk through the post and lintel entrance, across the great stone patio up to a blue door. Behind this blue door, inside, you’ll find a boutique store and tasting bar.

Behind that tasting bar, you’ll most likely find Livia Kocsis, the winery’s president.

I knew nothing of Crown Bench Estates other than that they made high quality wine. This is an understatement. They’re purists.

If you want to know Ontario wines, visit Crown Bench. They make wines only when the years have been kind to the vineyard. Peter Kocsis, the winemaker runs a tight ship. Typically, the crop is reduced from 5 tonnes to one and half to insure quality.

And you may wonder: why do wine producers reduce their crop? Well quantity rarely, if ever equals quality when it comes to wine. Just imagine you are a vine. You have a hundred berries in your bunch. You’re absorbing nutrients from the soil, drinking up the rain, growing in the sun. You have a hundred berries to pass off the nutrient goodness to. That’s a lot. Imagine, a third of your bunch is reduced. That’s a weight off your chest. Instead of giving your all to a hundred berries, you’re sending all that you can to just thirty or so berries, concentrating them.

Less berries, the more each one gets. When the harvest comes around, the grapes are fuller, richer and create a more charismatic, deeper, complex wine.

The wines come from these small batches.

“The wine is made in the vineyard,” Livia told me while I tasted their wine. “What good is the wine if you don’t have a good crop? All the work is done out there. We check the vineyards, prune for less buds. We keep it clean. No mildew, no bugs.”

If you want to get a good idea about the pulse of the Ontario wine market, talk to Livia. She knows this region high and low, from the politics to the players. She won’t give you the sugar-coated version of the strides growers and producers have made and the struggles they still have. Instead, you’ll get the truth of the matter. The romanticism of wine can often blind us from the hard work and dedication to the art of viniculture. Livia and her husband are on the side of the quality, not the mass market.

For many wine consumers, wineries are marketed with the customer completely in mind They are safe places. You roll up, you see the sights, you taste a bit of the history, you taste the wine, you become enamored. The experience is entertaining and gives you insight into the region but rarely do you see the everyday hardships.

Peter and Liva with their Crown Bench winery offer a different experience.

“One of the big corporate wineries had vineyards out this way. I won’t name any names but I will say, they left it in a bad state. They just don’t care. Slash and grab.”

I understood. Sometimes you have to call a spade a spade.

When I asked her what she thought of the Cellared in Canada wines she thought it was a shame.

“We’re the laughing stock of the wine world. How can we support our local grape growers, how can we support our own industry when wineries are doing this? We’re practically the only quality wine region in the world who does this. We’re embarrassing ourselves.”

She had a point, her argument was solid.

This is what I admired most about my experience at Crown Royal. Talking to Livia reminded me of how important it is to be devoted to our backyard, our Ontario.

I’m rarely ever objective about wines. It’s not that I don’t strive for objectivity, I simply believe a wine is a personal experience. But a personal experience that can be edified, that through time and practice, one can eventually learn to discriminate the quality, well, from the crap.

It’s the same with books and movies. The formulaic bestsellers and blockbusters satisfy the surface pleasures of your attention span – sex, drama, violence. But when you get tired of the same derivative plots, then you have to seek out the greater stories.

Wine offers a story. When a vineyard has been cared for, when attention and dedication have been administered the wine will tell this tale. Wine is a result of hundreds upon hundreds of decisions. In good writing, it is all about editing, about selection. The choices of the author is not unlike that of the winemaker – what do you sacrifice, what do you decide to make your end product tell the good tale? Crown Bench offers wines that are like good stories.

From vineyards planted back in the 1960s, this wine is mineral creamy apricot apple, with a very St.Veran Burgundian approach. Entered in the Chardonnay du Monde contest this local white came in 6th of 2,800 Chardonnays. Not too bad for a local Beamsville Bench offering. And like Burgundian whites, it can stand to age for another ten years.

While tasting with Livia, she informed me that the majority of their reds had recently been bottled. “Go easy, they’re quite young. You need to imagine where these wines will go.”

Merlot: A floral red plum with notes of coffee. This wine is destined to be beautiful. Highly recommended, but you’ll need to give it at least 6 months, if not a year or two before the wine fully blossoms.

Cabernet Sauvignon: Green olive, red fruit, smoky, svelte dark cherry with touches of spice, Livia recommended I decant this wine 24 hours in advance. I loved where this wine was going so I bought one.

Cabernet Franc: Of all the reds, I felt this needed the most time. At least a year. It’s still tight but once it has given its due, the black fruit, the chocolate raspberry will be fully shaped.

Meritage: Made from 50% Cabernet Franc, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% Merlot, this wine too will need a bit more time. The black fruit is there but it was hard for me to tell in which direction this wine will develop - either towards the fruity style of the New World or Bordeaux. Knowing the quality-minded devotion of the Kocsis, this wine will offer depth and excellence.

I do enjoy Icewine but not before noon and certainly, not without a hearty dessert. But there is a wondrous bevy of Icewines to try at Crown Bench.

I did get a chance to try a CABERNET FRANC ICE WINE JUICE. This juice is deliciously sweet and would pair wonderfully with a bramble berry pie. A great gift, unique for wine and juice lovers.

From their wines to their approach, Crown Bench Estates offers integrity and honesty. It’s good to support and root for our great local wineries.


Ontario - Wandering the Wine Route: Cattail Creek Estate Winery

Oct 12, 2009

The Four Mile Creek sub-appellation lies south of the Niagara Lakeshore and west of the Niagara River. It is a vast, fertile plain, the largest of the sub-appellations in the entire Niagara Peninsula known for producing premium, full-bodied reds. During the growing season, the area experiences warm days and cool nights.

Red shale with high silt and clay make up the soils here, providing good water retention for the vines. This and the plentiful sunshine give many growers opportunities to try their hand at numerous varieties.

In the midst of this extensive sub-appellation, you can find the small, family-owned winery of Cattail Creek. The Dyck family has grown grapes since 1957, providing premium fruit for local wineries in Niagara-on-the-Lake. In 2006, Ken and Renate Dyck’s daughter, Roselyn joined the family business, helping the family create the present winery.

The family currently owns 40.5 hectares (100 acres) of vineyards growing numerous varieties. Pulling up to their boutique store and winery on Concession 6 in NOTL, you can feel the vineyards spreading off in every direction, the sunshine poring down from a clear blue sky.

Inside the boutique there is a long tasting bar and a sizable menu of varietal and blends to try.

Variety and quality appear to be the two key terms to keep in mind when trying their impressive wines.

My moods take me in different directions and this goes for my wine moods. In the summer, I can drink red or white, it doesn't matter, I don’t have a preference for Pinot Grigios or other patio sippers. A wine is like a good book and sometimes they just pick you.

While visiting the winery, I found myself leaning towards the whites.

2006 Dry Riesling
This wine has a lovely nose and on the palate, a light mineral-lime-lemon-apple-spray of honey. Closer to a German style than New World versions like Australia and New Zealand.

2007 Off-Dry Riesling
A Medal Winner at the Canadian Wine Awards 2008, this Riesling offers more of a viscous peach-pear and orange blossom element than the above. For those that like stone fruit and a hint of sweetness, an excellent white to pair with Indian or Thai food.

2006 Riesling Reserve
Sourced from 30-year old vines, I found this wine resembled an Australian Riesling in its tartness. Expect greens apple and a chalky, mineral zest.

2007 Barrel Fermented Chardonnay
First off, I have to say, I bought two bottles of this wine. Usually, if I really enjoy a wine, I’ll pick up one bottle. I rarely buy cases. Drinking wine for me is about variety and what I open today is different from what I open tomorrow.
Another Medal Winner, this time at the Ontario Wine Awards 2009, not to mention a Best Limited Edition White Wine winner, this Chardonnay is exquisite. In the glass, give it a swirl and just breathe in the vanilla and toasted oak-apples. Take a sip, and the wine lifts you away into a buttertart-toffee–pear-almond-granola heaven.

Now you know why I bought two bottles. Wonderful value, it beats the best of California Chards.

2008 Serendipity Rosé
Another award winner (and not a surprise, this winery is a must-visit for wine lovers), this rosé is a blend of Gamay and Riesling. Even though summer is over, there are still traces of it alive in this fruity medley of strawberry and watermelon.

2008 Pinot Noir
Like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir has its own love-it-hate-it crowd. Wine drinkers are rarely on the fence when it comes to this grape. People who enjoy white wine can appreciate the occasional Pinot Noir as the wine’s acidity is similar to white wines. But those looking for something fuller-bodied, should look for a California Cab or Australian Shiraz.

I've become a recent convert of Pinot Noir. Cattail Creek’s Pinot doesn’t disappoint. It is soft and easy, a pleasant, approachable red with cherry and strawberry notes, not to mention a passing hint of barnyard.

2008 Merlot
I find Merlot especially delicious in the sub-appellations of Four-Mile Creek and the Niagara Lake Shore. (The other night I had the Hillebrand Trius 2008 Merlot – ready to drink but could age another year). Cattail Creak’s Merlot exudes ripe black cherries, smoky chocolate and light notes of vanilla.

I didn’t have a chance to try the other reds which include several higher-end, limited edition reds. There is also a large selection of Dessert Wines, many of them again, you guessed it, award winners.

But please, if you go, check out the Barrel Fermented Chardonnay. This is just one of the reasons to visit Cattail Creek.

Cattail Creek Estate Winery
1156 Concession 6
RR #4 Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON
L0S 1J0
Tel: 905-988-9463
Email: info@cattailcreek.ca
Hours of Operation
May - Oct., 10:00 a.m. - 6 p.m. daily
Nov - April, 11:00 a.m. - 5 p.m. daily


Ontario – Wandering the Wine Route: Vignoble Rancourt Winery

Oct 11, 2009

It was one of those cool autumn afternoons. Under an overcast sky, I wandered “lonely as a cloud” as Wordsworth once wrote. I had nowhere to go, no one to see and just wanted to get out, take a drive.

Niagara-on-the-Lake is always the perfect place to visit. It may not have the rolling hills of Jordan and Beamsville but the flatness of the landscape provides the perfect canvas for the sky to express its vastness. Some days, I am simply overwhelmed by the sublime configurations of our clouds, their mountainous sweep, the tranquil but melancholy allure of their presence on windy sunset evenings.

When it is threatening rain, and the breeze picks up, I feel I am lost in a beautiful dream.
After taking a scenic drive through Niagara-on-the-Lake, I took the East West Line back to St.Catharines. Just after Highway 55 I saw a sign for Vignoble Rancourt. I hadn’t heard of the winery before.

Just a few seconds down Concession 4, past a green, leaf-healthy vineyard I took a right into the long gravel drive of Vignoble Rancourt. At the end, a grey, modern two story structure, what you might call a blend between a barn and farmhouse, clean, unassuming.

I entered the tasting room, finding it peaceful, the dimmed lights lending a tranquil aura not unlike that of a monastery. There was a reverent hush. Mrs. Rancourt stood behind the tasting bar, welcoming me with her lovely French-Canadian accent.

I asked about the winery, how long it had been around. Only three years she informed me. She said the Rancourts had been in Canada for many generations and that her late-husband, Lionel Rancourt had started the winery.

While trying their only white, the Noble Blanc, a delicious blend of Riesling and Chardonnay, Mrs. Rancourt told me about the appellation. The winery is located in Niagara-on-the-Lake on the Niagara Lakeshore sub-appellation which runs from the Welland Canal to the Niagara River along the shorelines of Lake Ontario. The main influence on the vineyards here is the lake which moderates the temperature.

Niagara-on-the-Lake is the Niagara Peninsula’s largest wine region which also includes the sub-appellations of St.David’s Bench (under the Escarpment), the Niagara River (along the parkway), and Four Mile Creek (just south of the Niagara Lakeshore).

Some liken the wines of Niagara-on-the-Lake to that of Bordeaux in southwest France, further noting that the wines of Beamsville and Jordan are closer in style to that of Burgundy in eastern France.

For those just getting into wine, Bordeaux wines are blends, typically of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and a bit of Malbec. These are the five main varieties. For white Bordeaux, Sémillion, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle.

In Burgundy, the wines are always based on one grape. For the reds, Pinot Noir (unless you’re in the south of Burgundy which is Beaujolais and there the grape is Gamay) and for the whites, Chardonnay. There is some varietal Aligoté as well but not nearly as famous.

Tasting the reds of Vignoble Rancourt, I noted a predominant Bordeaux-influence.

Rancourt 2007 Noble Blanc
As I mentioned above, this is a Riesling and Chardonnay blend. There are many people who can’t stand Chardonnay and you can’t blame them. Chardonnay is that celebrity everyone hears about and gets sick of quickly (think Julia Roberts after Pretty Woman or recently, Paris Hilton). But this wine is fruity, fun with a backbone of mineral apple-melon finesse. For white wine drinkers, a must.

Rancourt 2006 Noble Rouge
I fell in love with this one instantly. A delicious, up front red with notes of strawberries, cherries, and raspberries. For some red wine, room temperature is alright but this blend deserves to be slightly chilled to bring out the mouth watering acidity. For white wine drinkers that don’t really like red but should give a red a try, another must.

Rancourt 2006 Merlot
This is a wine for those that like their reds with a little vanilla action. Far too easy to drink, this Merlot invites you into a softer world of toasty-chocolate and black fruit. It would pair perfectly with veal.

Rancourt 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon and Rancourt 2006 Cabernet Franc
These are wines to pair with beef. The Cab Sauv has a nice black tea/black fruit edge with a zing of cinnamon cranberry while the Cab Franc is herbal black fruit.

Rancourt 2006 Meritage
I mentioned Bordeaux above. A Meritage is actually the North American version of a Bordeaux blend. These wines cannot be called ‘Bordeaux’ unless they are from the appellation in France. For awhile, back in the 1950s and ‘60s, a great deal of wineries in California and Australia were calling their wines Chablis or Burgundy when the grapes weren’t actually sourced from the French region. It was just to give them a bit more European flair.

European Union laws are far more strict these days, quality has to be maintained, fraud avoided. You can't call your wine a 'Bordeaux' in Canada or the U.S. But instead of calling it a Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot/Cabernet Franc/Petit Verdot/Malbec blend, which can be a mouthful, the wine producers in the New World simply call it a 'Meritage'. Meritage essentially translates Bordeaux-style for wine drinkers.

This Meritage is delicious and packed with medium-bodied berry fruit and fragrant baking spices.
Rancourt 2004 Meritage
There are wines I am drawn to, that I want to sit with, savour, almost meditate with. The 2004 Meritage is such a vintage. When I tasted it I was entranced. It made me think of a quote I once heard: Taste is the memory of another time. I don’t know who said it or if I misheard it, but believe me when I write that this wine took me to another place. I was lost in a leafy-barnyard bouquet of black olives, green peppers, cranberries and seductive cinnamon. It reminded me of the scene in the famous novel, In Search of Lost Time in which the narrator dips his Madeleine cake into his tea, takes a bite and suddenly remembers the street he was raised on and all the other places of his childhood. Drinking this wine, I was somewhere else – maybe back in time, I don’t know. Another life.

Lionel Rancourt made this Meritage before he passed on. You can tell he put his heart and soul into it. I didn’t get a chance to meet the winemaker but this wine is a testament to the fine art of winemaking. Limited supplies on this one.

The beaten path is not for everybody. There is an excellent book by editor in chief of Wired Magazine, Chris Anderson called The Long Tail. In the tome he explains that the more popular products, the hits in our markets are fleeting and eventually most consumers eventually want to explore the greater market for themselves.

The wines of Vignoble Rancourt are not showy or flashy like Australian or California wines (or the hits) we see bombarding the LCBO shelves. The winery isn’t huge, it’s modest and the wines available offer the consumer quality, giving us in Ontario a taste of the Old World, a world of Bordeaux in our own backyard.

Vignoble Rancourt Winery
1829 Concession 4
Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON
L0S 1J0
Tel 905-468-2882
Fax 905-468-9243
email lionel.rancourt@sympatico.ca
Hours of operation:
May – Oct., 10:00 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Oct. – April, 11:00 a.m. – 5 p.m

ANNOUNCEMENT: Happy b-Day, Johnny.


Ontario - Wandering the Wine Route: Malivoire

Oct 9, 2009

As autumn approaches step-by-red-leafed-step, this is the ideal time to get in the car on the weekend and wander the wine routes. The harvest is in full-swing for some wineries while others are waiting for a bit more sun to get their grapes just right (or ripe). The slow but glowing changes in the trees give the atmosphere a crisp-gold allure amidst the fading, dying greenery. Autumn, yes, is truly the twilight of all seasons.

Growing up in Niagara, I spent numerous hours in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Lazy afternoons drives along the Niagara Parkway, through the country, to visit family or go see a band at the Angel Inn. It was always about experiencing the fresh, colorful scenery that makes this backyard of mine so beautiful to absorb in fall.

Lately, though, I’ve been exploring Jordan and Beamsville.

On a day of mixed rain and sun, I drove along King St. to Malivoire. This winery sits on the rolling Beamsville Bench, which runs from the creek gully just west of Cherry Avenue in Lincoln to Park Road west of Beamsville. Whereas the majority of land in Niagara-on-the-Lake lies on a flat landscape, the wineries along the bench have some of the most visually stunning views of vineyards and Lake Ontario.

Malivoire is tucked up just off King St. on King St. E. The vineyards surround the winery in a sweep of slopes and the structures, Quonset huts, once designed for the U.S. Navy during the second world war, sit huddled on a hillside once considered too steep to grow vines.

The winery’s facilities are very modern and like Tawse on the Twenty Mile Bench, incorporate a gravity-flow system (actually they are the first to incorporate this innovative measure in Ontario). Martin Malivoire, a special-effects movie director and his partner, Moira Saganski bought two vineyards on the bench during the 1990’s. Winemaker Ann Sperling got the wines off to a great start. Assistant Shiraz Mottiar took over for the 2005 continuing in Ann’s impressive footsteps.

The winery owns two vineyards, Moira and Estate on the Beamsville Bench while leasing the land of the Eastman (also on the bench) and the Epp Vineyards on the nearby Twenty-Mile Bench.

The main varieties grown include: Pinot Noir, Gamay, and Chardonnay, with Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Marechal Foch, and Riesling.

Malivoire is dedicated to sustainability. The use of chemicals has become more of an issue for wineries as many wonder whether using quick solutions (i.e. pesticides that cause nutrient deterioration) is really worth the risk. While some 'irresponsible' wineries are more apt to abuse the land and leave it in a scorched-earth state, Malivoire has chosen to work with it. Cuttings and pomace are used for compost, herbal anti-mildew sprays replace chemical ones and grapes are picked by hand, reducing the emissions put out by harvesting machines.

The care taken to preserve the land shows up immediately in the wines. The Moira vineyard has been maintained under Organic certification since 2001.

I came alone on my first visit to this winery. (When I go wine-tasting solo, I try to exercise a bit more caution. One day, I had been to two previous wineries and even though I had spit most of the wines, I was beginning to feel that buzz wine invites to one’s psyche and soul when lunch has been overlooked. When I get this feeling of romantic gregariousness, I tend to take a kind of sensual, laissez-faire approach to tasting. )

I asked the employee behind the counter what she recommended, what she thinks is the best. She recommended the Chardonnay and the Pinot Noir.

She wasn’t wrong.
Malivoire Main Five Series 2007 Chardonnay
53% barrel of the wine was fermented in oak sourced from Burgundy, the remaining 47% fermented in stainless steel.

I was incredibly impressed with this wine as it brought on a bounty of bright, green apples, toasty butterscotch and delicious dashes of nutmeg. This is a fun wine, outspoken, easy to drink. My eyebrows shot up; I smiled. I dubbed this Chardonnay Party Girl.

Malivoire 2007 Mottiar Chardonnay
From vines planted on the Mottiar Family Vineyard on the Beamsville Bench, this wine is a bit more sophisticated than the Party Girl. Before I found out the vineyard had been planted with Dijon clones, I guessed Burgundy. The acidity was present, also the citrus and the stone fruit but there was an enticing Werther’s Original candy element that made it so much more beautiful. 

I have to say, I felt a moment of nostalgia but also this sense of immediate pleasure and wonder. The wine possessed a soothing depth. If it was a woman, she’d be blonde, tanned, dressed in gold and she’d take me out to the symphony. Falling in love, I called this Chardonnay Opera Girl.

Moira 2006 Chardonnay
The last and most expensive of the Chardonnays I tried was sourced from the Moira Vineyards. I took a sniff. It wasn’t as pronounced as the other two. I cupped my hands around the bottom of the glass to warm it up. I took another sniff.

There… but still, just slight, just subtle.

I found this wine to be a bit shy, perhaps it needed more time to come out of its shell. Taking in the mellow vanilla, the light melon and banana notes, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit rejected as if the wine had given me the cold shoulder or simply didn’t want to talk. The wine reminded me of a beautiful woman lost in a good book. She is there in the room but doesn’t respond to your footsteps, doesn’t hear you call her name. You kiss her neck and she just waves you off. Get out of here, I’m reading.

Call me crazy, but that’s the impression I got. I dubbed her Bookish Girl.

I shared my impressions with Anna behind the counter. She found the personalities I had attributed to the wines quite amusing.

I didn’t want to go yet. I had to try to two of the reds before I left.

The Malivoire 2006 Pinot Noir is both lively and tempting. Just imagine a red cherry dipped in paprika and red pepper, then add a shaving of pepperoni and you get my meaning.Complex and complete.

The Old Vines Foch was my personal favourite. For this wine, take a bramble berry pie, smother it with mulberry juice and drip on a few lines of pineapple glaze. Heaven - absolutely, irrefutably heaven.

Malivoire makes other notable wines - a Gamay, a Guilty Men red blend, their famous Ladybug Rosé, which I’ll try – hopefully - on my next visit.

4260 King Street East
P.O. Box 475
Beamsville, Ontario Canada
L0R 1B0
Tel: 905-563-9253
Toll-free in North America: 1-866-644-2244
Fax: 905-563-9512
Regular Hours:
Monday to Friday 10:00am to 6:00pm. Weekends 11:00am to 6:00pm

Phillips, Rod, Ontario Wine Country. Whitecap Books, North Vancouver,
Wine Access 2009: Canadian Wine Annual


In-Depth: Eastern Europe - Bulgarian Wine

Oct 6, 2009

Cathedral in Varna
I was not a very good caterer. It wasn’t so much serving food or working behind the bar that I failed at (I can set up a beautiful bar), it was just the refined and robot-like dignity I was forced to maintain while working. Our head manager was the most thankless perfectionist, went by the book and a few of our supervisors were just plain mean – like ‘power-trip mean’.

So one night I cracked. I was bartending for a small group of accountants and, at six-thirty twenty people showed up. They nibbled, they drank, they kibitzed and around quarter after seven, most had left. A handful of guys stayed behind. Settling into the nice plush chairs, they wanted to drink, shoot the breeze. I stood behind the bar trying to maintain my rigid pose but they only yelled at me, ‘Hey relax, buddy! Or, ‘Don’t stand like that, you remind me of my wife!’ One of them with what I thought was a Russian accent invited me to have a drink.

I thought, what the hell, why not?

I poured us both some wine, ate some veggies off the table and we talked for a half hour. Eventually I was caught and (I suspect) ratted out by my supervisor. Not surprisingly, my hours were pared down after that episode.

I learned the man was from Bulgaria and he told me about the wine of his country.

From what this man shared and what I’ve read, Bulgaria was once the ‘wine lake’ for the Soviet Union. As we saw with Romania and Slovenia, wine has been made in the region for thousands of years. But when Communism was foisted on the people, the country was intentionally planted with a massive amount of international grape varieties, all there for the sole purpose of supplying Mother Russia.

By 1966, the country’s output placed them as the sixth largest wine importer in the world. During the seventies, British bargain-hunters who were too cheap to splurge for a left-bank Bordeaux, bought the cut-rate claret-like Cabernets of Bulgaria. The country peaked in exports before the fall of Communism in the 1980s. The first signs of let-up arrived with Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign.

During the 1990s, figures suggest yields had greatly fallen below the French average. It was at this time that many of the state-owned wineries were privatized. International investors rushed in to take advantage, with foreign support arriving from as far away as Japan and the U.S. Even Russia, newly ‘democratic’ took part.

Before things took a bit of turn for the worse, Bulgaria initiated the Wine Act of 1978. This decree classified wine into several categories: Standard wines for your basic light wines, Special Wine which included sparkling, liqueur and fruit wines, High Quality wines without Geographical Origin (similar to our ‘Cellared in Canada’ wines except the grapes are actually grown in the country), High quality wines with Declared Geographical Origin (DGO), which are wines grown in one of the five regions and Controliran – which is higher than DGO and similar to France’s Appellation Contrôlée. This assures customer quality but if it says Reserve, the oak flavor will most likely come from the oak chips instead of the time spent in a large wooden vat (which imparts hardly any flavor).

My new Bulgarian friend told me about Bulgarian Cabernet. “The freshest and fruitiest. It is absolutely delicious. One of the best reasons to visit my country. It is so good and reasonably priced.”

Besides the four main international varieties - Merlot, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and of course the Cabernet (the country is believed to have more Cab vineyards than California) – Bulgaria also offers up eastern European varieties.
Mavrud grape bunches
MAVRUD – is a fine, late-ripening grape used to produce spicy reds.
MELNIK – named after a small town in the Struma Valley, this variety is grown closer to the Greek border, producing powerfully scented wines of beautiful, sometimes sweet flavor.
PAMID – a common grape, pale and quaffable.
GAMZA – a grape you’ll find in Hungary called Kadara, it is also planted throughout Bulgaria

Whites include: a Georgian, Rkatsileli, Dimiat (Serbia’s everyday Smederevka), Red Misket (not red but a crossing of Riesling and Dimiat) and some other foreign grapes, including Muscat Ottonel which is very popular and Aligoté, the lesser-beloved grape of Burgundy widely planted in Eastern Europe.

Bulgaria isn’t a big country. (“You can drive it in a day.”) From Serbia to the Black Sea, it’s only 450 km and from northern Greece to southern Romania (at its widest), just about 300 km.

The summers are hot, temperatures can reach as high as 40 degrees Celsius while winters can be quite cold with -25 degrees at its lowest. The Black Sea does offer a moderating effect in the east but much of the country experiences a continental climate.

There are five distinct wine regions:

The DANUBIAN PLAIN, where most of the famous regional wines are produced in the north-northwest of the country. (Look out for wines from Sukhindol or Subhindol)

In the east, the BLACK SEA takes up the entire coastline. International varieties like Chardonnay and Gewurztraminer are grown here and do extremely well due to the maritime influence. Reds are planted further inland on the mountain slopes around Khan Krum and Novi Pazar.

The southern portion of the country is divided between the EAST and WEST THRACIAN LOWLANDS, with the West Thracian Valley putting out the most wine. Here you can find higher-quality Mavrud from Assenovgrad.

The STRUMA VALLEY (or South West) is considerably smaller than its neighbors as the vineyards ‘snug up’ against the Greek border. This is where you’ll find the Melnik wines I mentioned, the most “original wines” according to Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson in their World Atlas of Wine. Unfortunately, the originality of these wines is fast becoming “a rare commodity” in Bulgaria according to the Atlas.

Unlike France, Germany, Spain and Italy where the vineyards of the Côte du Beaune, the Mosel, Rioja and Tuscany take precedence on a wine’s label, Bulgaria is all about the winery. What happens in the vineyard, stays in the vineyard and what you’ll discover is that the winemaker’s expertise and the winery’s expensive equipment are more important than where the grapes are sourced. In many instances, they’re grown in one region and vinified in another. This is why the European Union only recognizes two of Bulgaria’s wine regions (Danubian Plain and the Thracian Lowlands) in terms of quality.

This issue has largely been a result of fragmented land holdings. With the fall of Communism, the government wanted to resolve pre-1947 ownership of plots. My friend explained that: “Yes, vineyards, unfortunately fell into the hands of people who had no vine growing experience whatsoever. But here you are, let us say you are a young man living in the city. One day you get a call. You find out your grandfather used to own land in Lozitza near the Danube. That was in 1939. You live now in Varna on the coast. What are you going to do? It is on the other side of the country and you don’t have the money or the time to work the land. But you don’t want to sell it, either. You are very proud of your family. The land has been returned to you; you don’t want to just let go of it. So, for many, the vineyards just fall into neglect.”

So if you’re in the wine store, it won’t much matter where the wine is from as who is making it.

In the north, top producers are as follows: Russe (under Russian ownership since 2003), Suhindol (best known in the west), Magura, Festa Holdings, Vinex Slavyantzi.

And in the south: Boyar (one of the biggest selling - 65 million bottles worldwide) Vini Sliven, Blueridge, Beleveder Group, Vizvanod Assenovgrod, Peshtera Group (a leading Bulgarian spirits producer) and Damianitza.

I had a great chat with my new Bulgarian friend. He told me about his culture shock when he first arrived in Canada. Apparently nudity isn’t a problem in Bulgaria and children swim naked. When he went home to the Black Sea (the Cherno More in Bulgarian), he told a friend children had to wear bathing suits in Canada. His friend replied, “they must be sick people!”

“The fact that you are ashamed of nudity makes you suspect in my friend’s eyes. And in the eyes of my country.”
Bulgarian beach with nudity edited out (note there are two sailboats)
I had to laugh. Maybe we are a bit twisted – too much Victoria prudery.

He also mentioned a therapist he met at a business conference. She told him that we are all intrinsically connected to our homeland. It made sense as he talked of Chernobyl, a city he knew that was literally wiped out by an environmental mishap. The citizens had safely gotten away but within a year, many had died of cancer. His belief: their city had ‘died’ and its displaced people eventually died with it.

“That is why I have to go back to my homeland. I have to be there. To see it, to live it. Yes, the Black Sea is beautiful. Do not get me wrong, Canada is nice but a temporary home. I have work here. But I have to go to my true home once a year. And when I am there, I drink my country’s wine. It gets me through the year.”

Pamid Grapes on Foodista

Fielden, Christopher, Exploring the World of Wine and Spirits. WSET: London, 2005.
Johnson, Hugh and Jancis Robinson, The World Atlas of Wine. Bounty Books, London, 2001.
Robinson, Jancis (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Wine. Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, 2006.


In-Depth: Eastern Europe - Slovenian Wine

Oct 5, 2009

Wine-dark grapes smell sweet here...
-Anna Akhmatova

France, Italy, Germany, Spain and Portugal all have fascinating histories. France was once divided between the Franks and the Normans. Italy, long after the fall of Rome fell under the political sway of  both Spain and Austria. The lands of present day Portugal and Spain were once ruled by the Moors and latter-day Germany was divided into tiny territories (Bavaria, Prussia, Swabia etc.) before unification under Bismark.

Over time, these western countries took shape and acquired their present character. As for Eastern Europe, many nations such as Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia and even Greece had been conquered and torn by western powers (notably Austria) and the east (Russia and Turkey), leaving little time for them to establish their mark in the world.
Tucked in between Italy and Croatia, Slovenia’s share of the Adriatic shoreline is consequently minimal. Though small,  it is nonetheless a beautiful country with a diverse background.

This country had partaken in the livelihood of greater powers for over two millennia. The land once belonged to the Roman Empire (27 BC – 476 AD), to the Principality of Carantania (7th century), the Holy Roman Empire (10th century), the Habsburg Monarchy (14th century – 18th century), the Austrian Empire (19th century), and the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (20th century). Between the two world wars, it struggled under the political yoke of the Germans, the Italians and Hungarians before becoming part of Croatia.

In 1991, after centuries of foreign rule, the country finally gained independence. However, it has a long winemaking history despite the decrees of differing empires, monarchies and kingdoms. In Ancient times, the Celts and Illyrians tribes made wine here before the Romans. During the Middle Ages, the monks and monasteries took over before the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Following World War II, production fell into the hands of co-operatives and quality became an issue. In 1967, the PSVVS was founded, a business association devoted to improving the identity of Slovenian wine. Over a decade after independence, Slovenia joined the European Union in 2004.

The country produces approximately 1 million hectoliters of wine per year, three quarters of which is white. Of this, 5% (or about 50,000 hectoliters) is exported to other Eastern European countries, North America, Italy and Germany. There are over 40,000 registered wine growers covering 24,600 hectares of land, making for a fragmented world of vineyard quality.

It is my belief that without a strong government identity, it is difficult to be recognized in the international wine market (Canada is experiencing this now as many grape growers are being undermined by the government).

Slowly but surely, Slovenia is emerging from the shadow of its dark and strife-ridden past as her wines are finally gaining the recognition the country deserves.
 Slovenian vineyards
As I mentioned, white grapes make up the majority of the Slovenian vineyard, many of which are of eastern European origin. These include: Šipon (also known as Furmint in Hungary), Ranina (Bouvier in Austria – a cross between Zöldsilváni and Chardonnay), Kraljevina, Pinela, Zelen, and Rebula (in Italy: Ribolla).

In terms of International varieties, they are planted here in abundance but grown under their Slavic names: Sauvignon Blanc becomes Muškatni Silvanec (inspired by the German  name for Sauv Blanc - Muskat Silvaner); Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris in Slovenia are Beli, Modri and Sivi Pinot, respectively. Traminer is Traminec, Riesling is Renski Rizling (not to be confused with Welschriesling which is Laški Rizling), Müller-Thurgau is Rizvanec and Blaufränkisch is Modra Franinja.

The Italian varieties Refosco and Picolit simply become Refošk and Pikolit. (The Refošk red I tried from Vinakoper - see 'Deciphering Slovenian Wine Labels' below - was exceptional: chocolate and cedar, tobacco and mulch held together by deep blackberry fruit... lush and delicious.)

Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay thankfully keep their names for easy recognition.

There are three wine regions which are further divided into 14 sub-regions:

PRIMORSKA is right on the coast. Here the climate is Mediterranean and the wines more Italian in style – dry whites and firm, fuller-bodied reds. In some instances, the vineyards of Primorska are just a continuation of Italian ones: Collio becomes Brda, Kras is east of Corso. Vipava and Koper make up the other sub-regions.
Near Koper, the town of Piran stretches towards the idyll Adriatic

POSAVJE is more continental in climate, divided by the Sava River (Dolenjsk in the south, Bizeljsko and Smarje north of the river). In some parts of the region, especially Bela Krajna, the wines tend to be fuller as red grapes can ripen with ease. But the region is also perfect for producing botrytized wines (from grapes that have experienced Noble Rot, helping to concentrate the sugar and make the wine sweet).

PRODAJVE in the north east is similar to its neighbor in terms of climate. Resting along the Darva River, the wines grown in this region are lower in alcohol and typically white. You can find sweet wines to rival the best of Austria along with Icewine (during the good years) and Sparkling wine which is on the increase. Subregions: Maribor, Haloze, Radgona-Kapel, Predmurske, Sredjeslovenske Gorice, Prekmurske Gorice and Ljutomer-Ormoz.

If you thought German labels were tough, well, I'm sorry to report, these are a bit tougher. Written in the Slovenian language, they can be rather intimidating. But there's hope as most of what's on the label is rather essential. Here's a breakdown: 

VINAKOPER – is the name of the producer. Koper (in Primorska on the Adriatic coast)  is also the place where the grapes have been sourced.

REFOŠK – is the variety, also known as Refosco in Italy. Remember, the wines of the Primorska region have Italian-style wines because they are closer to Italy.

KLASIČNA PREDELAVA – translates as ‘Classical Production’ or Classic.

VRHUNSKO VINO ZGP – means the wine is the highest or ‘top quality’ vino. The ZGP or Zaščiteno geografsko poreklo is the quality control division of Slovenia’s wine industry. According to the law, all wines must be analyzed, tested and scored before they are delivered to the market. During this process, the wine is determined to be one of the following:  

namizno vino (table wine),
deželno vino (wine from a specific part of the country similar to Italy’s IGT),  
kakovostno vino (quality wine) and 
vrhunsko vino (or top-quality wine).

PRIDELAL IN POLNI – literally ‘grown and bottled’ by the producer Vinakoper


Slovenian wine is not nearly as popular as Italian wine. You're more likely to find a Greek or Croatian wine before you track down a white or red from Primorska, Prosavje or Prodavje. But if you're determined, check out the LCBO, especially the Vintages stores in major cities. The more popular these wines become, the more likely you'll see them around. In time, hopefully, Slovenian wine will gain a greater following. This  great country certainly deserves it.

Johnson, Hugh and Jancis Robinson, The World Atlas of Wine, Bounty Books, London, 2001.
Robinson, Jancis, Jancis Robinson's Wine Course. Abbeville Press, New York, 2003.
Robinson, Jancis (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Wine. Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, 2006.


The Other Italy - Umbria: Getting out of Tuscany's Shadow

Oct 2, 2009

Umbria's narrow streets like cisterns
that stop up ancient time tasting of sweet wine,

Adam Jagajewski 'To See'

Let’s face it a book called Under the Umbrian Sun would cause more confusion than inspire sales. Tuscany exudes the romance many travelers need when they imagine Italy. Umbria (or, for some, ‘Tuscany without the coast’), unfortunately doesn’t have the same tourist-attracting panache as its western neighbor. For those with Florence and Sienna in mind, the capital of the region, Perugia sounds to most North Americans like something you spread on a pizza as opposed to a place to visit.

But there’s more to this landlocked landscape. I won’t use the term ‘diamond in the rough’ but it is a wine region that needs a little bit more time to ferment attraction and attention.

Umbria is the 4th smallest of Italy’s 20 regions in terms of physical size and population. With Tuscany to the north and west, Marche and the Apennines to the east and Lazio to the south, Umbria is completely surrounded by Italian neighbors – unlike other regions that share a border or seaway with another country.

Named for the Umbri tribes who settled in the region around the 6th century B.C., the area is largely mountainous. Archaeological finds in the region indicate there was a wine culture existing before the Romans. The Romans loved Umbrian wines which at the time were mainly white with some reds and rosés.

Monastery in Assisi
One of the main tourist attractions is the town of Assisi, birthplace of St. Francis who founded the Franciscan Order there in 1208. The other town of interest is -

During the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the town of Orvieto became a highly reputed artistic centre. It was in Orvieto cathedral, during the late 14th century, that Ugolino di Prete Ilario began to paint the Life of the Virgin, a wall mosaic in the apse illustrating various scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary (Ugolino died before it was completed; his students Pintuiricchio and Antonio Viterbo finished the piece.)
Life of the Virgin

The work compliments Ugolino’s other famous masterpiece, Miracle of Bolsena, a series of scenes depicting Christ’s passion also painted in the cathedral in the Cappella (Chapel) del Corporale. Michealangelo is said to have been influenced by these works when he painted his frescoes in the Sistine Chapel.

The wine of Orvieto could then be the liquid artistic equivalent of the great Italian masterpieces and architecture of Umbria. During the twelfth century, the various popes who came to admire Ugolino’s work, summered at Lake Corbara where they drank this thick, sweet wine from Orvieto. The sweetness was achieved by storing the grapes in humid caves following the harvest. While waiting to be pressed, the grapes would get moldy, the Noble Rot then would concentrate the fruit flavours.

The famed poet, Gabriele D‘Annunzio called the wine ‘the sun of Italy in a bottle’.

Town of Orvieto with Cathedral in the far right corner
Today, the town of Orvieto continues to rest remote and timeless on its ancient hilltop. The wines of the area have become more modern in style. The majority of these whites are invariably secco (dry) and commonly exported to the North American market. However, if you happen to visit Italy, and make your way into Umbria, you may even be able to track down an Abboccato style (slightly sweet), an Amabile (semi-sweet) and a Dolce (sweet) in some grocery store or wine shop.

Orvieto, like Chianti in nearby Tuscany, is a blend of grapes. The predominant is Trebbiano, known locally as Procanico. The other varieties include: Verdello, Grechetto, Drupeggio and/or Malvasia Toscana. Wine produced around the historical area of Orvieto can be called ‘Classico’ because they are the original vineyard sites for this wine.

Today, there is a new Orvieto emerging in the form of an Orvietano Rosso, a red blend from numerous grapes including a 70% mix of Aleatico, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Canaiolo (used in Chianti), Ciliegiol, Merlot, Montepulciano (famous in Abruzzo), Pinot Nero (also known as Italian Pinot Noir) and Sangiovese; and up to 30% Barbera and Dolcetto (both grown in Piedmont), Cesanese, and Colorino. Whewww!... A lot of grapes but the region is growing more potential.

Sagrantino is considered the new star grape in the Italian world of winemaking grown particularly in Montefalco. Recently, Sagrantino di Montefalco was elevated to DOCG status in the mid-1990s. The grape is often blended with Sangiovese. Nicolas Belfrage in his book, Brunello to Zibibbo believes the latter grape has a better ‘affinity’ with Sagrantino than the French varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah.

The grape has been in the area for a considerably long time. Some believe it dates back to the Roman times, the Itriola grape mentioned by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History. Others suggest it was originally from the Middle East and brought to the region via Spain. Franciscan monks from the Middle Ages are rumoured to have first planted the variety. Whatever the story, Sagrantino has a strong presence in Central Italy.

Despite the size of its small berries and bunches, it is big in other ways including colour, acid, sugars, tannin, extract and sugar. Like the Corvina grape used to make Valpolicella, it has contributed to making and still to some extent today, semi-sweet wines. The grapes, like we find in Amarone and Ripasso were dried and pressed. Traditionally, the wines were consumed for special occasions like Lent. With 30-100 grammes of residual sugar per litre, it was far too massive of a wine used for mass (although the name Sagrantino or sacramento - ‘sacramental’ - suggests a different story).

Up until the end of the 20th century, Sagrantino remained under the radar. It was until the 1990s that the Arnaldo Caprai winery helped to create renewed interest in the variety. Arnaldo and his son Marco, with the help of wine maker Attilio Pagli experimented with the variety, modernized and reorganized their winery and launched this little-known, small-berried grape onto the world stage. The results have all been positive.

Orvieto and Montefalco are places beyond the usual tourist-beaten path. Their wines have a quiet romanticism simply worth seeking out, from the chilling and beautiful lemon-citrus of the dry white (sometimes sweet) to the full-bodied bosom of the red. These wines exude (and I'm sure D'Annunzio would agree) the true Umbrian sun.

Bastianich, Joseph & David Lynch, Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of Italy. Clarkson Potter, New York, 2005.
Belfrage, Nicolas, Brunello to Zibibbo: The Wines of Tuscany, Central and Southern Italy. Mitchell Beazley, London, 2001. Cernilli, Daniele & Marco Sabellico, The New Italy. Mitchell Beazley, London, 2008.
Clark, Oz, 2009 Pocket Wine Guide. Harcourt Publishing, Orlando, 2008.
Insight Guides, ed. Insight Guides Italy, 6th Edition. London, 2009.
Robinson, Jancis (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Wine. Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, 2006.


ANNOUNCEMENT: Happy b-day Pete Magreet


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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