Thursday, February 27, 2014

Right-Banks of the world: comparing St Emilion

When I started the #WineTastingCircle of Vancouver, it was with the aim of furthering my wine-education. I wanted the opportunity to taste wines with my colleagues in a private setting of cooperation and discovery... it was my Dad, really, who set me on this path when he told me "Don't save your special bottles of wine for special occasions, use them to create special occasions"
And so in the Summer of 2013 I held my first #WineTastingCircle with a total of 4 attendees. We compared the superlative vintage of 2000 Bordeaux with six different regions represented, with the goal of understanding not only how the vintage affected the areas, but the blends as well, and how well those iconic wines were aging. But in the back of my mind I always knew I wanted to take that concept one step further.
Right-Banks of the World: comparing St Emilion vs other regions making similar styled-blends. A bold idea I was told by colleagues, especially as we would be tasting the wines blind, but an educated palate would be able to decipher California from Bordeaux, Washington from Chile... right?
Well, that what I set out to learn and to make it a proper comparative I needed to make a level playing field.


Varietals: Merlot, Merlot with Cab Franc, perhaps a hint of Cab-Sauv
Price-point: (BC dollars) $40-$80
Vintage: variable... as its not all from the same area - vintage isn't really a factor
Attendees: 10 sommeliers, wine-judges, journalists, importers and merchants. Total experience about a century in the industry and another century as non-professional wine lovers (wine-geeks in training?)
And of course I had my venue, the inimitable Uva Winebar wine cellar/private room ( ). I must make mention of their genuine hospitality and professionalism, and my personal gratitude for their continued patronage of our quarterly event. Small wonder that the hospitality industry in Vancouver drops in at Uva on a regular basis... industry folks always know the best spots :)
And so you may be forgiven for thinking that at this point I had it all figured out: all the technical minutia of time and place, the wines, the people. What more could there be? My friends, what we really had to overcome - when we got to the room and started pouring the wines wrapped in paper, no hint of what lay beneath... what we had to challenge in those 4 minutes we were given per wine to dissect: to analyze with our eyes, our noses, our taste, was: our own prejudice.
For who could be more prejudiced about wine then wine-lovers, professionals or neophytes? We read the trade-papers, we listen to the experts, the winemakers, the critics. We are the ones who scan for changes in weather patterns. Why? So we better know whether to invest in the vintage or not: is this going to be the big one ? The stellar year that lurks in grand cellars for decades to come and savvy people buy now for a pittance and open decades from now to rounds of applause? Who could have more preconceptions about wine then the very people who are supposed to be immune?
But it's the nature of life: we get a little education and then we get an opinion, and Heaven help us when we get one of those! It was my very first wine-guru, the gifted DJ Kearney who taught that, whilst she was studying for the Master of Wine program (of which we have 3 in Canada) she was, after all, still just learning. A pantheon in the wine-industry who this Spring is a judge at the Argentina Wine Awards told us that she was basically the same as we students of the ISG Level 1. She was learning, growing, developing and hungry for more.
always respected Chateau Pipeau, St Emilion
always respected Chateau Pipeau, St Emilion
I knew that I needed to bring that energy to the #WineTastingCircle and, in fact, my colleagues all brought the same fire in their bellies. We had veterans of 25+ years experience and novices only 2 or 3 years into the hallowed halls of professional wine critiquing. It was as wide an array as could be imagined for one table but we were all pulled by the same force which was: To Learn. We fulfilled that role judiciously.
St Emilion is considered by some to be the "heart" of the Right Bank of Bordeaux and has been producing wine for centuries. Soft, plush, fruit-driven Merlot; some with dynamic structure and concentration to last decades and be worthy of their stratospheric price-tags, some juicy little gems intended for fast consumption on lazy afternoons and chic Saturday night parties. Would we be able to tell which two of the ten wines assembled were from reputable, Grande Cru Classe chateau?


2005 Chateau Pipeau, St Emilion Grand Cru Classe
2005 Jean-Faure, St Emilion Grand Cru Controlee
2003 Duckhorn, Napa Valley, California
2003 Stags Leap, Napa Valley, California
2008 Domaine de Chaberton "AC 50", BC, Canada
2007 Painted Rock, Skaha Lake, Okanagan Valley DVA, BC
2011 Painted Rock, Skaha Lake, Okanagan Valley DVA, BC
2010 Tinhorn Creek "Oldfield Series", BC, Canada
2011 Ghost Pines, 62% Sonoma County / 38% Napa Valley
there was a 10th wine, sadly corked...
LESSON #1   Could we tell the Bordeaux?
utterly brilliant Jean-Faure, St Emilion, 92 points
utterly brilliant Jean-Faure, St Emilion, 92 points
No. Out of all of the professionals, and all the skilled palates, differing experiences, etc etc not one person could tell which wine came from Bordeaux. But beyond that, some wines were so similar that they could have passed for "twins" or two bottles from the same vintage and same winery thrown into the mix as a test.
2005 Jean-Faure, Grand Cru Classe St Emilion VS 2011 Tinhorn Creek reserve Merlot, Okanagan Valley DVA, BC
In the glass we could see that the Jean-Faure was older, but in all other respects these wines were identical. One member of the panel pointed out the similarities and so we all tried them side-by-side (myself I was inclined to disprove him) and damned it all but he was right! 10 people, 10 votes that the "little" winery from BC had produced a Merlot of such character, such concentration, such finesse that no one could tell it from the Bordeaux. But I knew the difference:
2005 Jean-Faure at auction in California approximately $40+ making it about $100+ in BC. 2010 Tinhorn "Oldfield Series" about $30 at the winery: one-third the price. That was the difference.
an elegant wine; complex, seductive
an elegant wine; complex, seductive
LESSON#2   Would the California wines be our top-scoring wines?
No. Easy to believe that New World palates would crave that "classic" (to some) California over-ripe fruit, but Parker-esque devotees we were not. Top-score went to a winery that is relatively unknown even in BC - but I need to qualify that. The highest scoring wine of the night was from Domaine de Chaberton which is in our farming belt in the Lower Mainland: Langley. Better known for their excellent value-for-money white wines, the reds from this winery have for the most part fallen off the radar of industry-insiders. I was fortunate enough to be gifted a bottle of this "AC50" which is made by the owner, about 125 cases per year. It is an Ode to everything that is brilliant in St Emilion style blending and reminded  me of Chateau La Gaffelierre, 1er Grand Cru Classe the very first time I tried it. Should you not be familiar with Gaffelierre, it is enough to understand that they have  incredible legacy in France and are owned by nobility.
Asides from the many differences such as vineyard age, pedigree, etc which are all just back-story, the big difference to me is that Chaberton AC50 runs about $50-$60 in BC whilst Gaffelierre runs over $150 if memory serves... once again, triple the price.
LESSON#3   Would the iconic wineries produce the highest scoring wines?
Once again, no. Whilst it's true that some of the more prestigious wineries crafted product that was impressive to all: deep, rich, concentrated wines with superb balance, structure and length on the palate it was in fact a bevvy of new producers who took or tied for first, second and third place.
I have long been a proponent of the notion that when one practices something for a considerable length of time, one gains skills. It's just a fact. The equation has always been explained to me as the "10,000 hour rule": anyone who practices a skill, any skill, for 10,000 hours will become a master at it... baseball, physics, agriculture. All skills follow the "10,000 hour" rule. And we as consumers believe that intrinsically! We cling to businesses with longevity because, instinctively, we believe that their quality of product or service must be superior. In the world of wine, that has long been a Belief.
But we must also be cognizant of the fact that we have entered a New Age of Wine. The entire industry has been turned upside-down in less then 20 years and virtually every rule that was etched in stone has been (successfully) broken. Wine is being produced in regions that no one thought possible, at altitudes considered unproductive, with varietals that had "no place being grown there". Really, when we consider the wine industry as a whole, who would have ever given credence before 1976 to the idea that the French would consider a Napa Valley Chardonnay more classical, more elegant, more "French" then France?
Clare gorging herself age 2 years Painted Rock
Clare gorging herself at Painted Rock
But that is the lay of the land today. Today it isn't just Bordeaux creating great Bordeaux, and we as educated consumers should be willing ( with due diligence) to open our eyes, our tastebuds and our wallets to the potential of these new ventures. St Emilion has a very special place in my heart and I will always cherish the producers there who have branded quality on their viticulture for centuries. But if there was one message that was hammered home to me time and time again in this tasting it was something my two-year old daughter taught me when last we visited Painted Rock vineyards on the bluffs above Lake Skaha.
It was a beautiful early Fall day; we got to the winery and Clare ran straight for the vineyard. She clambered over rocks and tramped through the rows until she found what she considered to be the perfect spot and then stopped to apply herself to the task of eating as many grapes as possible. It was brilliant! I see now, many months later, that she didn't stop to ask herself where the grapes were from: she tasted, she loved, she continued. We all of us have fallen prey to attractive packaging and weighty lineages, but just like my child (and a blind tasting) showed me:
It's what's inside that counts!


*scores are my own and not representative of each individual member of the #WineTastingCircle, but do reflect the consensus 
unanimously voted the top wine of the evening
unanimously voted the top wine of the evening

1st place

2008 Domaine de Chaberton "AC50"     93 points
...on the nose offers rich aromas of sous-bois or wild under-growth, tobacco leaf, fresh red currants/raspberries. The palate is awash in well-integrated fine tannin and lean/well-focused medium+ acid... still young in it's life, this wine has years for development and a decade plus in the cellar. Big concentration on the palate with the same musky/sandalwood edge and a kaleidoscope of fresh red berry/sour cherry flavors colored ever so slightly by a hint of young blackberry/huckleberry. Merits serious decanting or two runs through the aerator.

2nd place (TIE)

2007 Painted Rock Merlot                         92+ points
...Big, bold, beautiful! Fully intense aromas pouring from the glass: rich red and dark berries, a whole bouquet of flowers and gentle teasings of black peppercorn at the end... ultra-fresh palate with crisp, clean acid, silky-smooth tannin integrated thoroughly and an overall impression of seamlessness. Drinking brilliantly now, it will continue to evolve for years and will cellar for a decade with ease. Of note: most people at the table thought this to be top-tier California...
2003 Stags Leap Merlot                               92+ points
...beautifully intense and textured nose of warm winter spices, candied almonds, hints of pink peppercorn and dark flowers. Medium+ crisp acids with tons of life left and a generous fruit driven palate with complimentary tones of pencil shavings, sous-bois forest floor and wild herbs. Very well balanced, with good concentration, this Merlot will last for several years still but not develop further.

3rd place (TIE)

2005 Jean-Faure                                            92 points
...a classic: complex marriage between honeyed almond aromas and a bouquet of perfumed red and dark flowers mixing with fresh berries in the garden. Crisp, fresh, tastes like it's a new wine! I was so certain that this was only a few years old, I'm certain that there are years of development and a solid decade plus of cellaring for this exquisite wine. Fine, well-integrated tannin, medium+ concentration of bruised plum/red and black raspberry flavors but not quite as developed as the sublime aromas.
2010 Tinhorn Creek Merlot                      92 points pretty! To my mind, this was what most people think of when they think "Merlot". Bright red berry aromas mixing with soft floral tones, a hint of warm earth and the lightest fresh herb tint. Ultra-crisp red berry acid, incredibly well-integrated tannin structure, the palate is a mirror of the nose (always an indication of quality to me). Great balance, structure and concentration. Beautiful for drinking now and can be held in the cellar for several years.
the slopes above Lake Skaha: brilliant Bordeaux from BC
the slopes above Lake Skaha: brilliant Bordeaux from BC
As always, I look forward to your thoughts, comments and questions. Here, or:
on Twitter @AStudentofWine

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