Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Ca' la Bionda Amarone della Valpolicella

One of the greatest perks of entering the wine industry has been that now I get to spoil my wife in yet another way; I now can spoil her with wine! My wife is traditional in some aspects; she loves a rich and robust Gewurztraminer or Auslese Riesling (as many women do), but, she also loves a velvety Amarone.

I've never written about this relatively recent gem from the Valpolicella  sub-region of Veneto, Italy, but it is certainly worthy of note. How many times have some of the finest products ended up as the result of some mishap or an experiment gone awry? Well, lucky for us, Amarone is one such story.

In this area just West and North of Verona, where the cool breezes flow down from Monte Baldo and the moderating influences of Lake Garda can be felt, this is where the magic began. And as I said, it began quite by mistake. The area has been known to produce a slightly sweet red wine for centuries upon centuries. The wine in question? Recioto.

Recioto has been recognized by Italians since the time of the Romans... the great scholar and philosoph Pliny the Elder even wrote about it! And it has been made in much the same manner for as long as people can remember. And in Italy, people have long memories.

The grapes in the Veneto region are not known for their depth or concentration. It is these cooling breezes from the mountains which, whilst preserving the grapes natural acidity can inhibit the grapes maturity. Grapes need heat in the day, and cool evenings, to really reach their peak. In Verona that just doesn't always happen. And so the locals began to dry the grapes to intensify the flavors before pressing (known as Appassimento).

Of course, drying (or dessicating) the grapes creates it's own challenges which include a number of not-so-favorable molds which can be incurred. Consider "Noble Rot" without the Noble. But - but the winemakers knew that they had hit upon a solid principle for dramatically increasing the flavor in their wines, and the public agreed.

Flash-forward to the 1930's and whilst a winemaker is fermenting his grapes he unwittingly leaves a cask of wine tucked in a corner. He stumbles upon it many months later and low and behold, his Recioto has fermented to dryness! No longer a sweeter style red, the new wine is slightly bitter (or Amaro in Italian) and develops characteristics of dark cocoa, coffee, savory black cherry) and layered in a structure that can age gracefully for a decade or longer. That winemaker released the first Amarone in 1936, but it took until 1953 to be formally recognized and it wasn't until 2009 that it was officially given DOCg status (* a symbol of top-level quality in Italy).

And through this struggle, Amarone has grown into over 25% of the total production of all wine in the Valpolicella region. And as for today's wine; the Ca' la Bionda???

Family run, family first. The Castellani family has been working this land since 1902 and has been instilling environmentally respectful initiatives since day one. Of course, 100 years ago it wasn't called environmentalism - it was just gold old fashioned horse-sense. One of the best examples of this is their use of the landscape in their production line. By placing some of the production downhill from the rest, they can use gravity-feeds to transport the wine. By eliminating mechanical feeds, they help preserve the integrity and quality of the product whilst preserving the integrity of the planet! Nicely done!

The Castellanis have also stopped the use of all herbicides, fungicides and weedkillers for decades. Perhaps the most costly though of all their initiatives? In 1990 the family re-built all of the terraces on their 30 acre vineyard site. I know a winemaker who use heavy tractors to "even-out" an entire slope, thus making it easier for his machinery to get in and eliminate or alleviate the need for manual labor. The result was that only a few years later a heavy rain came and washed half of his vineyard onto the highway. He lost millions and the landscape was scarred. Here we see the Castellanis working with ancient techniques to ensure a solid foundation (pardon the pun) for the future.

The results of this work are most keenly felt however, in the glass:

2007 Ca' la Bionda Amarone della Valpolicella
$50 CAD, 92+ Points

varietals:   70% Corvina, 20% Corvinone, 10% Rondinella
vine age:   15-30 years
yield:   maximum 8 tons per HA
altitude:   200 metres, south-facing
soil type:   rich limestone; calcareous marine-sediment
  • visual:   clear; medium+ intense garnet core with substantial cherry rim/some bricking
  • nose:   clean; medium+ intense and still youthful aromas; cherries and cherry-blossoms abound, some dark stewed fruit, a hint of dark cocoa
  • palate:   clean; dry, full raspberry acids, medium+ chalky/grippy tannin, medium body, medium+ ABV (15.5%), medium+ intense and youthful flavors that mimick the nose perfectly: stunningly rich cherry levels followed by a long line of precise minerality, fresh young flavors in harmony with a subtle earthiness. Very sound structure and great balance, medium+ to long length
  • conclusion:   a wine thoroughly enjoyable in it's youth, this will richly reward the patient cellar! Enjoy 2013-2025
  • FOOD PAIRINGS:   the bright acid calls for fat and the rich tannin calls for protein. Consider venison Stroganoff with wild mushrooms on Manitoba wild rice latke. Raspberry toned acid will always cosy to wild meat, and the cream in a Stroganoff will offset perfectly. The wild mushrooms enhance the slight earthy edge to the wine as does the wild rice, just in another way. I would make this  Stroganoff quite thick as well, so that it sat on the latke in a visually appealing manner.

It would have been easy, I think, for that winemaker in the 1930's to say that he had made a mistake. I find myself thinking that I've done so quite often. But what's important (to me right in this instant) is that he didn't. That fellow didn't judge himself, or critique harshly. No, no, in fact he gave himself, and the situation, the benefit of the doubt. He gave life a moment to show a possibility other then what he had anticipated. And what did life do?

Life gave him Amarone.

A good return on his investment. Just as the Castellanis are cashing in on the investment of time, energy, and devotion from four generations of their family toiling on their land. These vines aren't worked by family... they are tended. And why such ardor?  Because this family knows, as does any educated palate who samples their work, that this vineyard will continue to produce world-class wine for generations to come. Ask Jancis Robinson - she gave the 2005 vintage 18/20 which is higher then she rates many wines much more expensive then this!

As always, I welcome your comments and questions.

CINCIN~!!!     SLAINTE~!!!     CHEERS~!!!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Yasa vineyards, old vines Macabeo

I recently purchased a bottle of wine at auction on a whim... the subject was a non-vintage bottle of a Spanish varietal that I rarely, if ever, see as a single-varietal in this part of Western Canada: Macabeo. I knew very little about the varietal other then it's use in northern Spain for one of my favorite sparkling wines; Cava.

So I bid, I won, and I took it home. The bottle was very inexpensive and I thought to myself "Meh. How bad can it be?"

Turns out, it's brilliant. So brilliant that I saved my last half-glass in the fridge for over two weeks, and even without vacu-vin, it's still superb. How can this be you wonder? Well let me tell the tale~!

the Calatayud region
Spanish winemakers have had a rough go of it for decades... only just recently have they come back into favor. And so in Calatayud, northern Spain, in the 1950's banding together was really all the little producers could do to stay afloat. Hence the creation of the Virgen de la Sierra co-operative in 1954. They have 579 members, and fight to produce quality wine in a place that for many people must look barely inhabitable.

Not so to the grapevine~! This stony, loose soil - so poor in nutrients - is perfect for the grapevine. Not only does it not mind that it has to find moisture, it loves it. Remember that; grapevines are like people... always thriving because of challenge, not despite it!

Macabeo vine; 50 years or older
Anyways. This stony soil is quite loose, which allows the vines a bit of an easier time to push down, down, down to the iron-rich deposits below and the sacred water. In fact, it was the local name for the dry creek-beds that gave the name to this wine: Yasa. These vines thrive, and find all that they need in the dry and dusty high-altitude valley. Just look at this vine, bent with age... no machine has ever touched it - this is entirely worked by hand and has been for decades. The average age of the Macabeo here are over 50 years... and whilst many New World producers would charge dramatically higher prices because of the vine age, this co-op does not.

They have my thanks.

And they have my thanks for showing me what this brilliant little varietal is capable of! I've discovered that the best white Riojas which sell for upwards of $100 or more in my market, are made with top level Macabeo and aged sometimes for decades (I have one in the cellar right now from 1991). But then, why am I surprised? 

This is the age of the wine-consumer; never before have we been able to enjoy such quality, such diversity, and at such extraordinarily low prices. True enough, there is mass-produced, chemically-enhanced, bag-in-a-box swill as never before, but for those willing to look in dusty corners, and try something other then the norm - treasures abound! 

The co-op winemakers of Calatayud display quality and precision in their winemaking. They also display a high level of honor in how they treat their land, their vines. These are the types of winemakers who excite me and make me want to try more! And when they hawk their wares for a more then reasonable price? Then I'm willing to try just about anything they care to sell.

n/v Yasa old vines Macabeo
$9.99 USD,   88 points
Kysela Pere et Fils importers

varietal:   100% Macabeo, 50 years or older
altitude:    850 metres to 1000 metres
soil:     poor, stony, loose; high iron-content, clay sub-surface
  • visual:   clean; light golden-amber core with bright silver highlights
  • nose:   clean; moderate+ intensity of youthful aromas; very precise minerality, crisp and clean, lime juice, tree resin, light musk
  • palate:   clean; dry, full lime acids, light body, moderate+ ABV (13.5%), moderately intense youthful flavors mimicking the nose with an extremely focused though not developed minerality throughout, sharp citrus tones mixing with a light floral background. Very good balance and structure. Good length
  • conclusion:   A cheeky little devil, this is a playful Tuesday wine with spirit and substance. This wine has it's own character and will not be confused easily with other wines in it's pricepoint! Worth buying a case, it will not develop further in bottle. Drink 2013-2015
  • FOOD PAIRINGS:   crisp acids call for some fat, and the minerality with play off seafood. Consider Oysters rockefeller!!! The above mentioned is self-explanatory, but the bacon in a good Rockefeller will bring the savory qualities out from the wine and make it even more like a northern Rhone white then it already is.

And so, from this quiet part of northern Spain comes a value wine that truly has value. And so much of that part of Spain is in the wine: it has kept it's bright acids because Calatayud is a continental climate: they have hot summers, cold winters, but above all they have a marked change in temperature from day to night. Hot summer days and cool summer nights preserve the acidity in wine. The soil I can still taste, and find impressive in such an inexpensive wine. But then there is the last part of what we call terroir that I can't explain, not yet. That is the people... but I dearly want to meet the people who work so diligently to coax wine from old vines in a parched part of the world. Yes, I want to meet those people and shake their hands.

As always, I look forward to your comments and questions.

CINCIN~!!!     SLAINTE~!!!     CHEERS~!!!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Dominio de Punctum, Temperanillo blend from Spain

There's always something heart-warming to me when I hear the tale of a person chasing their dream. Wine being my passion, what could possibly be more inspiring then, but a dream fueled by thoughts of a winery?

Enter the hero(s) of today's story: Jesus, Ruth and Maria-Cristina Fernandez of Dominio de Punctum organic/bio-dynamic estate and winery. Located only miles down the road from their traditional family estate on the plains of La Mancha, Spain, Jesus didn't always believe that he was destined to follow ancient family traditions. No, Jesus earned an MBA degree and worked for years in the finance sector. But, I'm told that we are all destined, more or less, to change career paths at least twice in our lifetimes.

Jesus chose his site with care, and the careful consideration that he and his family lavish upon their vineyards earned them the respectable Demeter Association certificate for bio-dynamic practices in 2005. If you are unfamiliar with bio-dynamic agriculture, please read about my local heros in British Columbia; the Cipes family at Summerhill winery in Kelowna ( ). In essence; this is a form of agriculture that celebrates a return to ancestral farming practices... it was only a few generations ago that farmers would rotate crops between fields to ensure that mineral-depletion in the soil was mitigated. These days? Farmers are taught to "impregnate" their earth with chemicals to enhance what was once natural. 

But I digress.

To me as a wine-writer, one of the greatest accomplishments that bio-dynamic farming facilitates is the ability to create true transparency in the glass (or bottle). And what do I mean by this? I mean that when the more educated palate tastes the bio-dynamic wine, they instantly get a sense of place. And when I say "educated" that doesn't necessarily mean book-educated... a man who has be drinking the wines of La Mancha for 50  years will certainly know the flavors of the region far better then I will, whether he has attended a wine class or not. He would taste the wine and it would taste of a certain region... a specific herbaceousness, or smokey characteristics, or coffee... you get the idea.

And these were the thoughts that pulsed as I tasted this little gem at under $15 CAD in the local! Fresh and friendly, with some true depth to it - I had no idea of the price until I did some research and was more then impressed.

2011 Dominio de Punctum, Tempranillo-Petit Verdot
$13.99, 90 Points
Renaissance Wine Merchants

varietals:  70% Tempranillo, 30% Petit Verdot 
vineyard:   single vineyard, 110 HA
altitude: 750 m
soil:   sandy-loam, rich in limestone'

  • visual:   clear; deep violet core with slightest cherry rim
  • nose:   clean; moderate+ youthful aromas of blackberry, black cherry, dusty earth, cherry blossoms
  • palate:   clean; dry; moderate+ red currant acids, moderate+ grippy tannins, moderate(-) body, moderate ABV (13.5%), moderately intense youthful palate mimicking the nose with emphasis on crisp red berry notes and a savory earthy background. Well balance, good structure, medium+ length
  • conclusion: does well with 30 minute to 60 minute decant, this wine is drinking well now and will for several years. Enjoy 2013-2015
  • FOOD PAIRINGS:  this really is a food wine. The tart acids may be daunting for the average North American consumer, but cosied up to a summer plate of cheese, bread and sausage - this will sing as wines under $15 rarely do. I personally enjoyed some as dessert with dark chocolate~! As a note, I had thought this was a very solid $20 wine my friend and colleague had sent me.

About 2 hours south of Madrid, half-way on the road to Valencia, you will find the vineyards of Dominio de Punctum. Here you can sneak a peak at a viticulture which, in many ways, is practiced as only the finest vineyards did 100 years ago. I say the finest because only great vineyards gift their wines with such love and attention, and until very, very recently - virtually no one practiced the old ways of farming. Not in the vineyard they didn't.

But we as wine-drinkers get to bear witness to this revolution. And, we get to fuel that revolution with our consumer dollars. We all are beginning to understand, in the most implicit ways, that the New Age style of farming, of living, simply does more harm then good. How brilliant then, that we have champions like the Fernandez family who will take on the work necessary to return us to something more sustainable. And when these business-people adopt modern techniques like installing a water-recycling plant (one of La Mancha's most pressing environmental issues) then we as a society are the better for it.

In a time when it seems that more and more choices are being taken away from us, this one is painfully simple and ridiculously easy. Vote with your dollars, and be the change you would see in the world.

As always, I welcome your comments and questions.

CINCIN~!!!     SLAINTE~!!!     CHEERS~!!!

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Sea Cider CiderHouse, Vancouver Island, BC

3 years ago I started writing about wine. I had no education, very little formal tasting experience, and few friends or colleagues in the industry. All I really had at that time was a handful of memories of wine at my Father's dinner table... crisp Riesling to match a rich choucroute, a fruity Zinfandel to play off an earthy chili or a vintage Port to warm the soul on a winter's eve.
This was what I knew of wine, and I knew enough to know that I wanted to know more.
My wife, Mrs AStudentof Wine, gave me the time and resources I needed to ensure I could study, taste, and travel my way through an accelerated wine curriculum. I will be forever in her debt, and she will always know it, for this week I was highlighted as a British Columbia Wine Writer for the 2013 Wine Blogger's Conference  .
It will be held in June in Penticton, BC - the first time ever in Canada, right in my backyard, and right in time for my birthday! Well, backyard by Canadian standards which means a 4 hour drive through a winding mountain pass.
And so, how fitting it is that I end my Christmas break by writing about a true harbor for artisanal crafting in BC; Sea Cider Cider-House . My wife and I, and our LittlestStudentofWine, all stopped by on our way back to Vancouver just before Christmas... the wind was whipping the Georgia Straight into a frenzy and none of us felt like braving the ferry crossing. How fortunate for us that Sea Cider is only minutes from the Swartz Bay terminal~!
We hummed along the country road in our aging Saab, watching the flocks of sheep - watching us. The drying leaves whistled alongside as we turned this way and that, and found ourselves crawling up the stony path to the gates of an apple Nirvana.
The service was genuine, the setting almost too perfect, and the cider was too good to leave all of it at the Cider House! The proof? As always in the glass my friends;

(driest to sweetest)

Sea Cider House-blend "Sea Cider"
90 points, $15
apples:  Empire and Winter Banana
7.1% ABV

     nose:     medium+ concentration of smokey, woodchip/smokehouse aromas, Silex notes akin to the Loire Valley (Sancerre) gunflint
    palate:    light, effervescent, bone-dry like good Champagne, persistent mild herbaceous flavors, good structure, medium length
     conclusion:   an refreshing cider to celebrate Summer with, this will win sommeliers over with its vast range of pairing abilities; from light seafood to rich, soft cheese and a myriad more choices

Wild English
89 points, $15
apples: Hertfordshire bitter sweet
Wild yeast fermentation
7.2% ABV
     nose:   medium concentration of savory citrus, slight barnyard akin to good Spanish red wine
     palate:   dry; lighter in body, incredibly quaffable, rich texture, medium concentration mirroring the nose with citrus tones running rampant, savory herbs and a soft yet detailed funky/barnyard quality which I find most intriguing. Great balance and persistence
     conclusion:     Another great cider for a hot Summer day, this is for when I've just finished mowing the lawn, raking the leaves, painting the fence and need to cool down. At over 7% I wouldn't trust myself to too much without food, but would gladly take a bottle by the pool

91 points, $17
Perry pears
6% ABV

     nose:     fully intense honey tones, complex and layered pear
    palate:   bone dry and mild effervescence, crisp and vibrant acidity, fully intense flavors mimicking the nose with garden dill lurking in the background, stunning balance and precision with good length
     conclusion:   Whilst low enough in alcohol to enjoy much of, I fear that I would enjoy this far too much. My favorite so far, this cider displays a high level of skill and personality

Ginger Perry
92 points, $17
Perry and Anjou pears, infused with eau-du-vie and black tea
5.5% ABV

     nose:   an over-the-top explosion of Christmas spices: nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, star anise finish...
     palate:     off dry; mouth-watering full acidity, medium concentration with the spice but also a cacophony of stewed dark fruit, orange notes, coalescing into Christmas Pudding in a glass~!
    conclusion:   with the full acids, this made me think of a drink before a meal, or better yet, a well placed palate cleanser in an over-abundant festive meal. The challenge: that this raucous little bevvie bursts with more flavors and aromas then most palate cleansers are wont. Be careful, but fortune favors the brave

91 Points, $17
(a traditional Strong Cider)
yellow Newton Pippin apples
no ABV given (meaning it's dangerous at around 8.5 to 9%)

     nose:     big, strong, full apple notes with some candied banana and pear tones
     palate:     off dry; fully intense and complex apple flavors with luscious honey tones, creamy apples, great balance and structure
     conclusion:    not terribly imaginative, this is an impeccably constructed powerhouse for a Friday night when it's time to get down to serious drinking! Move over you charlatan Strongbow. Make way you cheat Blackthorne! Here stands a true Cider.

92 Points, $17
aged in Screech rum casks
12.5% ABV
     nose:     medium concentration of molasses washing over apples and a hint of nutmeg, Demerra sugar
     palate:    off dry; light acidity, medium concentration of roasted apples with brown sugar and a hint of cinnamon. Great balance and very good structure
     conclusion:    always one of my favorite drinks at any time of year. This cider wins me with it's unabashed selfness, it's ease and playfulness whilst still having brilliant structure and nuance. If I made a hot rum toddy and cooled it down, using only the best rum possible - maybe it would be this good
I soon realized that this "little tasting" was swiftly sliding from enjoyable to decadent, and perhaps I would be best passing my car-keys to my wife! Little did I know that everything up to this point had indeed been a warm-up for the next round: Fortified Cider.
Pommeau *fortified*
92 Points, $25 375ml
snow apples
19.5% ABV
     nose:     light, sharp from the alcohol, dried apple and pear notes, sugar tones
     palate:    sweet; crisp medium acids, very Normandy style and silky smooth, the palate plays off the nose in a very co-ordinated manner. Superb balance and structure for those who enjoy the style
     conclusion:    I have no idea what the North American consumer might think of this, but those of my tastebuds who ally with France are rejoicing at this little gem! What a treat to serve at the end of a meal with fresh fruit, roasted nuts, some cheese or perhaps a Christmas cake. Truly world-class
Cyser (like mead) *fortified*
90 Points, $25 375ml
fermented honey and organic cider
16% ABV
     nose:    fully intense fermented honey tones, savory herbs
    palate:     semi-sweet; full bracing acidity, good structure, medium Meyer lemon and green pineapple flavors, long length
    conclusion:    mead style beverages have never taken my fancy, but I can appreciate the craftsmanship in this production
Pomona  *fortified*
90-91 Points, $25 375ml
frozen indigenous crabapples (made as icewine or glace-du-pomme)
16.2% ABV
     visual:   beautiful light amber/tangerine color
     nose:     medium+ to fully intense savory butterscotch, tangerine, salt water toffee, aromatic oranges, hint of clove or Winter spice, tinge of spicy pepper
     palate:    sweet; medium- acidity, similar to Vin Santo from southern Italy this cider is full of apple flavors, tangerine, lively apricots and apricot compote... slight disjuncture between palate and nose which is not a bad thing.
     conclusion:   an incredibly unique product, this will play well off of your less sweet desserts. Consider dark chocolate to be a good friend to this cider
And so concluded a whirlwind tasting; 9 ciders in less then an hour, and me now ready for a good nap. Everything scored between 89 and 92 points which I consider noteworthy for such moderately priced artisanal products.
The big surprise for me? Both my wife and I ranked the Ginger Perry as our favorite; a stunning example of Christmas in a bottle. All of these ciders displayed craftsmanship and precision, and we were glad to pay for a few bottles on our way out the over-sized wooden doors.
This little ciderhouse, only minutes from the Vancouver Island ferry terminal, is an oasis. They have truly charming staff, a view second-to-none overlooking the water (from the hilltop) and an obvious bevvie of beauties (pardon the pun). We sat at the long tables, my daughter playing in the towering old English chairs and my wife and I staring dreamily out the windows. These fine folks have worked hard to create a strong brand-identity and I am certain that it will pay them back ten-fold.
We will be back, of that I have no doubt.
As always, I welcome your comments and questions.
CINCIN~!!!     SLAINTE~!!!     CHEERS~!!!