Sunday, April 3, 2011


Hey folks, I'm back.

Over at Writer's Blanc, there's been some interesting opinion polls that are varietally specific: taking two varietals, either white or red, and asking wine enthusiasts all over to vote on their favourite.

Historically, I've taken on a "no two varietals are created equal" stance on my wine enjoyment (not just because I'll drink pretty much anything).  It has been pretty fun to choose a favourite from each selection, though!  It's always good to see the generation of enthusiasm from the simple request of input on a topic.  It's always been hard for me to pick a favourite anything, but this time I had a chance to think about why, and Joel Wilcox does really nice work in his descriptions of each variety's merits in the posts.  The choice avoids becoming arbitrary when the person asking you to vote puts care into the presentation.

I suppose that along this line, I've had some thoughts on varietal expression with regards to winemaking practices, and how it affects the drinking preferences of wine industry folks.  

On Modes of Expression

When I was taking the Winery and Viticulture program at Niagara, I had quite an enlightening lecturer by the name of Dave Hulley.  This guy is awesome to have a class with, because he's equal parts engaging and informative.  Also, even when side-splitting hilarity ensues, the passion can always be redirected at the topic, so the concepts really stuck with me.  

One of the classes where he spoke on winemaking to suit the needs of the varietal, he did a really good run-down on the differences between making Riesling and making Chardonnay.  These two varieties are pretty focal in Niagara, as I've probably mentioned before, and I do tend to lean more towards Riesling as a wine drinker.  The point that Dave brought up was that Riesling is a wine that doesn't need to be messed with.  It handles its own character and expression of terroir (ooh, this spooky realm again).  Pretty much, as a winemaker, you step back from the élévage process a little bit; that varietal isn't one that needs your creative  augmentation.  The winemaker has Chardonnay for their artist's canvas.  Chardonnay can involve so many more selective winemaking processes that you can identify the wine with who made it, even if they're consulting in a different country. 

Taking Dave's wisdom into consideration, this is where I get a little tripped up with the voting process that's involved with Marc Madness.  It was easier for me to choose the red varietals, because I have a definitive like/dislike for tannin and oak management decisions when it comes to varietal expressions.  I tend to like Canadian Syrah to be feminine and lighter in style; if I'm drinking from the Rhône Syrah I like it to come across as fuller and more peppery but with silky tannins; and bigger tannic styles can come from the hotter climate New World wine producers.  It just depends on the itch that I need scratched.

Whites are home base for me, my first love of wine, and of course they're regionally appropriate.  While all wine's expression depends on great care in the vineyard, that has to stay a focal point right through to the bottling.  It's not that I believe that oak treatments and fining and maceration considerations detract from the terroir expression--they certainly don't in the well-made stuff.  It's just such a fragile aspect of the aromatic white that I find it difficult to think of myself adding the personal flourishes that I'd like to do with barrel-aged whites and reds.

This is really where the key point to my voting preferences drew focus: if I had to choose one white variety over another, how much attention am I putting towards what I could do with it in the cellar?  I think it's a part of the vote that can't be overlooked, as we are artists as well as consumers.  Would I choose Riesling for its pure translation of the world around the vine?  One would argue that Chardonnay does the same thing when in the right hands, but I think it needs that bit of extra embellishment in the cellar to really make it outstanding.  I'm not a fan of Canadian un-oaked Chardonnay, and while I've had some Chablis that I've really enjoyed, it's never made it into my top list.  Thinking of how the varietal expresses itself without help was probably a lot of what drove my decision.

Bit of a Bender

I guess that this is a philosophical mind-fuck for the simple fact that commercial winemaking at a certain case production can't be non-interventionist.  Smaller craft wineries can do things like minimal movements, additions, and use of indigenous yeast for primary fermentation.  These still allow you to choose what to not do to the wine to allow for it's mode of expression, while with a bigger scale production you can browse a catalogue of active dry cultures and oak influences and fining agents.  There's just different ways to drive that varietal character creatively.

So in either way, the people making the wine put their distinctive mark on it, regardless of how little or how many things you do to make that mark.  How to choose one variety or style from just one other, when there's so much personality to take into account, on both the grape and production's parts?

My preferences aren't just driven by what I like to taste in the glass, they're also built around the sort of 'marks of my own' that I'd like to put on a vinous canvas.  What I'm influenced by on a creative level just doesn't compare some days to my hedonic impressions.  It'd be nice to hear reviews from those who voted, just to see how they were making that decision.  In general, my choices for reds were governed mostly by hedonics, and my choices for whites were governed by my own vinification ideas.

Diff'rent Strokes and All

Another point of interest to this idea of wine preference comes back to combining different tasters in the same room and get them to decide on a favourite from a flight of the same varietal.  "Why do you like that one?" is met with anything from "it's just damn tasty," to "I like cool-climate Chardonnay more than warm," to "the oak integration is seamless here, compared to the rest," and so on.  I guess that practicing sensory analysis makes preference a patchwork; combined with a patchwork of tasters there's really any number of influences that can drive a trend.

I attended a tasting in Erin, Ontario last weekend, hosted by the one and only Allison Vidug.  I'm never disappointed by the lineup of examples that she can produce--she'll be announcing more events on her site, so check them out if you'd like a good wine experience.  About 12 of us tasted seven wines in two flights.  Here are some notes!  We warmed up with a really lovely Cremant de Bourgogne produced by Vitteaut-Alberti (near Rully).  I do love good bubbles.

Flight #1

Wine #1: 2008 Coyote's Run Unoaked Chardonnay (Niagara, Canada)

Nose is clean, aromas of ripe Golden Delicious apple and Bosc pear, some fresh cream--MLF here.  Dry with medium intensity aromas of the apple and pear, finishing with a light nougat note.  Fresh and easy-drinking.

Wine #2: 2008 Wynn's Coonawarra Estate Chardonnay (Coonawarra, Australia)

Nose is clean with vanilla, sweet hay, cream, lemon curd and pie crust characters.  Dry, nice weight, lots of candied lemon and pineapple on the palate.  Some oiliness on the finish; finishes medium with some blanched almond notes. 

Wine #3: 2007 Millton Opou Vineyard Chardonnay (Gisborne, New Zealand)

Clean nose, focused aromas of vanilla and candied pineapple, candied lemon peel, tangerine.  Opens up to nice carmel and oaky scents, marmalade in the background.  Dry palate with the caramel revisted, vanilla, lots of preserved citrus and candied fruit flavours.  Nice acidity on the finish and the focus remains throughout.  This one has lots going for it!  A biodynamic NZ Chardonnay for $23? Seems worth it for sure.

Wine #4: 2007 Talana Hill Vriesenhof Vineyards Chardonnay (Stellenbosch, South Africa)

Nose is clean.  Some dusty hay/dry grass aromas up front, rubber glove, tropical fruit.  On the palate, similar fruit aromas revisited and some old wood/charred flavours.  Cheesy tones on the finish, roasted onions.  Definitely brings the funk.

Flight #2

Wine #5: 2009 Speck Family Reserve Chardonnay (Niagara, Canada)

Nose is clean, lots of crisp ripe green apple.  Sweet hay, fresh stone fruit and light vanilla cream flavours come out with aeration.  Finishes medium-long and has some nice, clean oak notes harmonizing with the fruit.  Showing elegance in its youth, will definitely improve with age.

Wine #6: 2007 Maison Francois Martenot "Les Hauts Bois" (Meursault, France)

Nose is clean, fresh and floral (tree blossoms rather than garden aromatics).  Wet gravel stoniness, creamy aromas.  White iris with aeration.  On the palate: full flavours with rich characters of cream, ripe apples and pears and flinty minerality underlying all.  Develops the florality with air, certainly has a lot of interest as it continues to change.  Fantastic example, and a joy to drink.  My favourite of the tasting; well worth the $42.

Wine #7: 2008 Heitz Cellar Chardonnay (Napa Valley, U.S.A.)

Nose is clean, grassy with clovers, lemon candies, apple skins, and ruby grapefruit.  Palate is heavy on the citrus with a bit of residual sugar, nice acidity that integrates with the grapefruit character.  Refreshing to drink but finishes a little too quickly.

This was a really nice, global tasting of a popular white variety.  Seeing the range of styles and discussing them with people with a wide range of tasting experience and wine knowledge was interesting alongside the preferences.  It was nice to discuss the favourites from each taster.

I think that what I like about doing tastings of a single varietal from various regions and vineyards allows for that aspect of personality behind the wine preference to be explored.  The added effect of the personalities surrounding you as a taster simply compounds the enjoyment of the experience.  It was definitely a great night, and thanks to Allison and the Bistro Riviere in Erin for hosting such a great event.

Cheers everybody!  Get out and drink some Chardonnay!


A patchwork of passions