How to read the labels
How do you know if a wine is sweet or dry?
It's a paramount consideration for most wine consumers, yet the industry likes to keep us guessing.
The relative dryness of a wine is measured in terms of residual sugar, or RS in the wine geek's argot. This is the level of natural grape sugar left after fermentation. Once grapes are crushed, yeast feeds off grape sugar to produce alcohol and carbon dioxide. It's hard to predict exactly how yeast will behave, and they rarely finish the job completely, mainly because some sugars are not easily fermented. There's always a little sugar left, even in the case of "dry" wines, though the level is pretty trivial. Technically, a wine is considered dry if it contains less than two grams of sugar per litre of fluid. But even here the perceived dryness of the wine depends on a host of other components, most notably acidity. If there's a lot of acidity in the wine (as in the case of, say, riesling), it can still taste pretty dry even if it contains much more than two grams per litre.
To produce off-dry or sweet wines, winemakers will intentionally halt fermentation prematurely, usually by controlling temperature. Chilling the vat paralyzes the yeasts, halting them from completing the job. Alternatively, many dessert wines are produced from dried grapes, essentially raisins, which contain a higher sugar-to-juice concentration. The yeasts will gorge till they get their fill, then die off as the alcohol rises, leaving behind lots of extra sugar. Many dessert wines contain much more than 100 grams of sugar per litre. Sweet port is made in yet another way, by halting fermentation halfway through the process with the addition of high-alcohol spirit. That extra alcohol instantly kills the yeast, once again leaving behind lots of natural grape sugar.
In a few cases, sweetness will be added to the wine from the outside, sometimes in the form of natural, unfermented grape juice. Many sparkling wines and German rieslings, which tend to be high in acidity, will be balanced in this way so as not to taste too sharp. But this can be considered an exception to the "residual-sugar" norm.
How do you know the sugar content? As I say, winemakers can be cagey. They rarely list whether a wine is dry, off-dry or sweet, preferring to let consumers make an educated guess. This can be frustrating, because with some wine styles the spectrum can range from bone-dry to quite sweet. Vouvray, an appellation of France's Loire Valley, is a classic example. You rarely know in advance how sweet the wine will be because only some Vouvray producers list the terms "dry" or "sweet" on the label. Look for "sec" if you want to be certain it's dry ("moelleux" and "doux" denote sweet).
German labels tend to be descriptive, but it helps to know German as well as something about wine laws. “Trocken” means dry, though “dry” wines often contain much more than two grams-per-litre of sugar. Those wines are rendered essentially dry-tasting by the high acidity prevalent in German wines. The popular label term kabinett often is mistaken to mean dry when in fact it refers to the relative sweetness of the grapes at harvest, not the wine itself. That said, kabinett rieslings usually are on the drier side (no guarantees). One big and laudable exception is Canadian riesling. Often producers will helpfully label them as “off-dry” to distinguish slightly sweet styles from the dry riesling.
The best rule of thumb (and I'm sorry to say it's sorely inadequate) is to check for alcohol content. If the wine weighs in at 11 per cent or lower, chances are it's at least a little sweet. Low alcohol tends to mean the yeast did not finish the job (of converting sugar to alcohol). Less alcohol usually equals more RS.
In the end, sugar is just a rough gauge of whether the wine will taste sweet or not. It's a question of balance. Some 14-per-cent-alcohol wines can taste subtly sweet, not because they contain much sugar but because they're either very fruity (a flavour often confused with sweetness) or because they lack sufficient acidity to create a sensation of total dryness. Australian shiraz is a good example; it can taste vaguely sweet even when it's technically dry.
Is higher alcohol an indicator of better wine?
Not in my opinion, but one could argue there was justification in the past for drawing that general conclusion.
In a dry table wine, alcohol correlates to the degree of natural fruit sugar present in grapes prior to fermentation. That’s because, during fermentation, yeast convert sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Generally speaking, the riper the grapes the better the wine. This perception is reflected in many European appellation laws, where certain wines can be accorded more lofty status if they exceed a specified alcohol percentage. For example, a wine labelled “Chianti Classico” must contain at least 12 per cent alcohol versus the more generic designation “Chianti,” which can qualify with just 11.5 per cent. A “Chianti Classico Riserva,” which tends to be even more expensive and esteemed, must have a minimum of 12.5 per-cent alcohol.
But this sort of thinking has to a great extent become passé. Most producers of fine wine today, regardless of appellation laws, tend to pick their grapes much later in the season and employ creative pruning techniques to ensure riper (if fewer) grape clusters. They’re after quality rather than quantity, because there’s more profit, or at least glory, in high-end wine. As a result, alcohol levels have been rising everywhere.
Besides, the wine world is more diverse than it used to be back when France and northern Italy dominated much of our wine consciousness. Many growing regions naturally yield more sugar and higher alcohol. Vines that bask in the constant, fruit-ripening sunshine of Napa Valley or Australia’s Barossa Valley, for example, will almost always yield higher-octane fruit than those in, say, Ontario, Germany or France’s Loire Valley. Also, some grapes naturally produce more alcohol – grenache and viognier, for example. It’s a matter of genetics rather than quality.
If anything, the alcohol-equals-quality mantra today has come full circle. Many producers are seeking to dial down the potency of their wines while still delivering ripe flavours in a more elegant style. They’re doing so in various ways, including with smarter pruning, by planting on cooler sites and even, more questionably, by artificially removing alcohol after fermentation.
What does it mean for a wine to be native yeast fermented?
You’ll find words to that effect increasingly applied to wine labels these days. It means the wine maker relied on yeasts naturally found on grape skins and in the local air to ferment the juice. Put another way, no commercial yeasts were added.
That’s how wine was made for thousands of years, of course. In fact, invisible yeasts that normally reside on the skins of fruit were what permitted humans to discover fermentation in the first place. Fruit either rotted or was intentionally crushed. Then the surface yeasts made contact with and would begin feeding off sugars in the pulp of the fruit, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide.
But in modern times, most wine producers inoculate their juice with commercially isolated yeast mixtures. Analagous to the Fleischmann’s yeasts used by home bakers, these carefully selected fungal populations perform more reliably and predictably, minimizing the risk of, say, a stalled fermentation, which can spoil a wine’s quality. These fast-acting lab yeasts also come in various formulations that can enhance the desired flavour or aromatic profiles. For example, there are yeasts that contribute more of a pineapple note to a chardonnay and some that can amplify the natural passionfruit note in a sauvignon blanc.
Increasingly, however, craft-oriented producers have been turning to the old ways with “native” or “wild” or “indigenous” yeasts. (I should add that many producers have always relied on the natural method without ever advertising the fact.)
Proponents, and I’m among them, argue that wild yeasts can often result in a more complex or nuanced flavour profile, much in the way wild-fermented sourdough bread compares to a plain sandwich loaf, sometimes even helping to contribute the “minerally” note that is so prized today by wine aficionados.
At the very least, the use of native yeasts generally indicates that the wine maker cares enough to take risks in order to produce a wine that is arguably more locally authentic or idiosyncratic. Yeast, too, is part of terroir.
What does estate grown mean on a wine label?
To some people, and by that I mean mainly small-scale wine producers, it means a lot. But if you have to ask, it pretty much means nada.
"Estate" is a grandiose reference to land owned by the actual winery. Many wineries (a huge number, in fact) produce wine not just from their own vineyards but also from purchased fruit, in some cases even from finished wine supplied from outside. There are even wineries that own not a stitch of land (the vinous equivalent of food trucks) and "virtual" winemakers who own no equipment and who choose instead to rent facilities to crush and ferment products.
Does any of this have an impact on the final product? Sometimes. Producers who bandy about the "estate grown" designation certainly would insist that estate fruit is best, the way that newspapers might insist their staff reporters generate better journalism than relatively anonymous newswire reporters. They're justifiably proud of their dirt, especially after they've paid a half-million dollars an acre for it in places like Napa. They believe that tightly controlling the process from vine to glass ensures better quality. Those same producers in many cases, however, will make additional non-estate wines based on purchased fruit that has been grown on contract to their own specifications. Such wines generally cost less than the estate-grown alternatives. But are they lousier?
In many cases not. There are, I would submit, even many factory-farmed, big-volume blends sourced from numerous growers that surpass many estate wines in quality. Price and pretentious labelling terms are sometimes but not always the best indications of quality.
Why is there no vintage date on some labels?
Some wines don’t declare their honest age. Mostly this is a hallmark of budget wines and bubblies, including Champagnes.
A date on the label represents the year the grapes were harvested. It’s relevant for a couple of reasons. To those who follow wine closely, it reveals something about potential quality – for example, if a growing season was exceptional. Also, the year permits you to calculate how old the wine is. Without it, you’d have a hard time knowing how long it’s been maturing in your cellar (or cooking in the liquor store’s hot warehouse). It’s like a car’s production year.
With non-vintage labelling, a producer is free to blend wines from several vintages, thereby achieving more consistent flavour rather than surrendering to the vagaries of each growing season's weather. At the low price end, many still-wine producers omit the vintage date because their goal is to craft an industrial product that will taste identical from year to year, just like Coke.
With non-vintage sparkling wines, it’s the same thing. Many bubbly-makers know – whether they admit it or not – that their bread and butter is made up of party-mode revellers who couldn’t be bothered to ponder the vintage character of a wine. Also, sparkling wines tend to be made from highly acidic grapes that demand cool growing temperatures. The weather in these marginal grape-growing climates is highly unpredictable, so it makes sense to blend the bad with the good and call it even.
What does reserve mean on a wine label?
It usually means an inflated price. Beyond that, it's hard to be definitive.
There's no international standard for the designation. Historically it referred to a wine deemed of higher quality by its producer. When a parcel of land yielded exceptionally concentrated grapes because of location and weather, the winemaker would hold the wine aside – "reserve" it – and lavish it with extended barrel time. These wines tended not only to taste richer but to cellar better as well.
That's the case with some reserve wines today, but certainly not all. Some regions, notably in Europe, regulate the term. A Chianti Riserva, for example, must spend a prolonged period maturing before release to meet the requirement, and usually producers only set aside their best juice for such treatment. In many other regions, they're free to use the term merely as a marketing tool. Kendall-Jackson in California, for example, calls its flagship chardonnay Vintner's Reserve – but there's no non-reserve counterpart.
Do reserve wines – whether genuinely held back for quality's sake or not – always taste better? No. I often prefer regular Chiantis to the same producer's riserva bottling. It may lack the riserva's concentration and cellar-worthiness, but often there's a more cheerfully bright profile to regular Chianti that is, I think, masked by the vanilla overtones of long-term barrel aging. And it invariably costs less. When it comes to wine, a higher price is no guarantee of superior pleasure.
Why do some labels say that a wine is unfiltered?
It’s a boast. And, no, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll find unsightly sediment in the bottle.
Many producers feel – quite rightly, I believe – that filtering can strip wine of subtle flavours. You generally want to filter for one reason, to remove haze and make the wine sparkle. Wine can contain many insoluble ingredients, such as proteins, tartrates, tannins and yeast cells. Over time, these will precipitate out of solution to form sediment.
That's why you may wish to decant a very old bottle, separating the liquid from the particles. Be careful to keep the bottle upright for a few hours (preferably eight or more) prior to uncorking an old wine so that the sediment has a chance to fall to the bottom. Then pour slowly and leave the last ounce or so in the bottle, which you can discard. Sediment is harmless, by the way, but it can render the drinking experience unpleasant. I know a sommelier who actually likes to collect sediment from old bottles of port and spread it on toast with blue cheese. It's a testament to the fact that there's flavour in the solids.
With a young wine, though, chances are you won't notice the particles because they'll be suspended evenly in the liquid.
The word “unfiltered” on a label is just a way for a winery to telegraph its commitment to minimal intervention, a hallmark of many great wines.
Why do some labels say the wine contains fish?
I am no doctor, so take this as a mere talking point for you and your physician. Health Canada’s food and beverage regulations to protect allergy sufferers and people with food intolerance apply in an odd way to wine.
Bizarre as it may seem, animal-derived products have been used in wine production for a long time. They're not added to wine, per se, merely used to clarify it. Suspended particles in the fermenting vat clump around these so-called fining agents and fall to the bottom where they can be easily removed.
Milk proteins, egg whites and isinglass, a derivative of sturgeon bladders, are a few common agents. Others include bentonite, a form of clay, and gelatin. Because Health Canada requires plain-language descriptors, isinglass must be categorized as "fish."
If used properly, fining agents don't make their way into finished wine. But the concentrations are difficult to measure and are generally very low – if they are present at all. Rather than risk running afoul of the regulations, some wineries may choose to be on the safe side and carry the warning regardless.
For the record, here's a statement from Health Canada's website: "After conducting a thorough review of the current available scientific information, Health Canada scientists have concluded that the use of allergen-derived fining agents does not normally result in any appreciable amount of protein from food allergens remaining in the wine, particularly when usual manufacturing practices such as filtration steps are employed. As such, the use of food allergen-derived fining agents in wine production, following good manufacturing practices, is not expected to produce wine that would pose a risk to egg, milk or fish allergic consumers."
But if you want to be on the safe side, avoid wines that carry a warning label.
What you need to know about wine reviews
Why do critics mainly seem to score wines in the 86 to 96 range?
I can’t speak for all critics, but I can speak for myself, and I assume that what I’ll say can be extrapolated to apply more generally. First and foremost, it’s true: A lot of wine is mediocre to lousy and certainly not worth a score of 86 or better. Why don’t you see more lower scores? Because such wines rarely see the light of print (or pixels) in the form of published reviews. Personally, I don’t waste too much time telling people what not to buy (though sometimes I do when I think it’s warranted). It’s not because I’m afraid to slam the dreck.
There is generally not much point to warning people about terrible wines. You see, wine criticism is not like movie, television or theatre criticism, where people are as eager to know about the bad productions as the good. In those worlds, there are only so many options available to readers in any given week, and it’s a manageable task for a publication to review them all. Besides, movies, television and theatre productions tend to get lots of hype. People become aware of them because of advertising or scuttlebutt on fawning entertainment-news programs or coverage on talk shows and the like. There’s great utility in a newspaper lambasting the bad ones while also celebrating the good ones. “Gosh, I almost went to see the latest De Niro comedy but I read that the script is pathetic and the acting is overwrought.” As a result, a culture has grown up around critical writing in those disciplines where much of the fun for readers is to delight in the sharp barbs. The same goes for restaurant criticism, where nothing is more delicious than nasty.
When it comes to wine, by contrast, there are literally thousands of choices available in stores in a big city in a given week. The selection changes all the time, too. If a reviewer were to spend a column covering eight or 10 wines that merited scores of, say, 72 or 79 (which is not great for a wine), readers would soon tune out and turn away. They’d begin following other columnists who tend to recommend what to buy rather than what to stay away from.
On one level, I would love to write at length about bad wines. As any honest critic will tell you, it’s easier and more gratifying (and earns you a bigger Twitter following) to lambaste what you hate rather than write about something that’s moderately good. I would argue that virtually all restaurant critics are cited or remembered more for reviews in which they skewered detestable establishments in the strongest terms than for pieces in which they awarded, say, a moderately good two stars to a decent, inoffensive brunch spot that had prompt and courteous service.
Wine criticism, alas, doesn’t work that way. Wine readers are far more interested in drinking well than in reading about Carlo Rossi California Blush or Sawmill Creek Dry Red Bag in Box. (Oops, did I just write two negative reviews?)
What qualities does a wine need to score 98 or 100?
Wines get that close to perfection. But they are rare indeed. Great, transcendental wines are made in exceedingly small quantities and generally, sadly cost a fortune, often sold directly to collectors rather than through the general retail market.
Their virtues mainly boil down to balance and complexity. The wines are elegant, not obvious. Their flavours, not just fruity but also savoury, unfold over many seconds and even minutes after each sip. They also generally possess the fruit-tannin-acid harmony to improve in the cellar over decades. Perfection is a tall order.
If any wine in my experience were to merit a perfect score, it would be Château Pétrus 1989. Others would surely give the nod to such wines as La Tâche 1978, Latour 1961 and – most storied of all – Cheval Blanc 1947.
But thankfully there are wines that come pretty close, scoring in the mid-90s, which can be had for less than the price of dinner at a fine restaurant.
Does price matter in a review? Are a $35 and $20 90-point wine equally good?
“Good” is the operative word here, and the short answer is yes. But it comes with an important qualification.
When critics score wines, they generally do so in relation to wines of the same style or grape variety. A consumer should take the wine style into account along with the score when making a buying decision. In terms of craftsmanship, a 90-point barbera, for example, may be just as "good" as a 90-point cabernet sauvignon. But the wines will not taste the same. Barbera tends to be lighter in body and contain higher acidity than a full-bodied cabernet sauvignon. That's just the nature of the two grapes. In a blind tasting, most consumers may prefer the cabernet sauvignon because full-bodied, soft-acid reds enjoy wider appeal.
Think of this car analogy. A Honda Accord is a superb automobile, with great durability and five-passenger comfort. It might rate a 95-point score from an auto critic if car reviewers were encouraged to assign scores (wouldn't that be interesting?). A two-seater Porsche 911 might merit the same high score because it's a fabulous piece of metal that accelerates more quickly and handles better at high speed than an Accord. (It also will turn more heads as you pull up to a restaurant for dinner.) But obviously there's a big price difference between the two. That price differential doesn't mean the Porsche represents poor value relative to the Honda. Each car is at the top of its respective class. The Porsche simply is designed for different requirements and desires. If speed is your need, you'll dream of the Porsche, not the Accord. For ample trunk space and lower maintenance charges come tune-up time, get the Honda, by all means.
So, if you're not a fan of high-acid red wines (most people sadly are not), then you may prefer a 90-point cabernet sauvignon to a 90-point barbera. Personally, I'd be more inclined to go with the barbera if I were dining on grilled sausages. It's better than an 88-point barbera, assuming the critic has done his or her job correctly. But it won't taste like a cabernet sauvignon and won't pair as well with prime rib.
Varietals and styles of wine explained
What’s the difference between pinot grigio, pinot gris and pinot blanc?
Genetically speaking, there's no difference between the first two. And, contrary to widespread belief, there's virtually no difference with regard to the latter.
Pinot grigio is merely the alternative, Italian name for pinot gris. It's a case of "you say to-MAY-to and I say to-MAH-to," if you will – or tomate and pomodoro, to stick with the Franco-Italian symmetry. Pinot blanc, though often considered a distinctly different grape, is in fact a member of the same variety (pinot), just a slight genetic mutation which results in a paler colour. Aptly named pinot "gris" boasts a skin that is slightly grey, which can sometimes result in a coppery hue when skins are briefly left in contact with the juice after crush.
It may surprise many wine drinkers to learn that both gris/grigio and blanc are, in turn, colour mutations of pinot noir, the red-skinned berry responsible for the vaunted reds of Burgundy and for Miles’s rapturous soliloquy in the movie Sideways.
But there are distinct flavour differences. Many producers reserve the term pinot gris for pricier, more carefully crafted and sometimes barrel-aged versions of that particular member of the pinot variety. “Pinot grigio” tends to denote a lighter, fashionably mass-market and unoaked style common to northern Italy, though there is considerable overlap and the distinction is very, ahem, fluid. Grigio is often maligned for its anemic, neutral flavour, though its zippy character can be just the thing under the hot summer sun.
And pinot blanc comes with its own taste spectrum, either rich (when oaked) or lighter and more neutral in the grigio way, though usually with more fleshiness and lower acidity.
Why is pinot blanc not more popular?
With wine as with people, there are attention-seekers and there are more subdued characters. Pinot blanc is a humble member of the latter. Its flavour is not as distinctive as most of the common grapes out there, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t make very good wine.
There are two other pinots that enjoy much greater popularity nowadays, pinot noir and pinot gris (a.k.a. grigio). Oddly enough, there’s essentially no genetic difference. They all belong to the same grape variety, botanically speaking. Pinot blanc, like gris, is just a pale-coloured mutation of the dark-skinned grape.
With grey-skinned pinot gris, you get wines that, depending on region and vinification techniques, can range from light, lemony and zippy to full-bodied and spicy. With blanc, the band is narrower, and the flavours are more neutral. Usually medium-bodied, it tends to have a rounded mouth feel and vague orchard-fruit notes along with refreshing but more moderate acidity than many white wines.
Although it’s sometimes compared with chardonnay, there are differences. Unless cropped to very low yields, pinot blanc usually lacks the big fruit and body, for example, that makes chardonnay a better candidate for heavy oak aging. That said, it’s no accident that the vine historically was often mistaken for chardonnay, the dominant white grape of Burgundy. Indeed, in Germany pinot blanc is known as weissburgunder – literally “white Burgundy.”
The variety is strongly associated with the region of Alsace in northern France, where it most often is deployed as a component in blends with such grapes as pinot gris and riesling. These days, some of the most exciting examples of pure pinot blanc, in my estimation, come from northern Italy and British Columbia. In the Okanagan Valley, intense daytime sunshine amplifies the variety’s fruitiness while cool nights help preserve acidity for more verve. Maybe we’ll see more recognition for, and supply of, pinot blanc in the future.
What’s the difference between Pouilly-Fumé and Pouilly-Fuissé?
It's the difference between sauvignon blanc and chardonnay.
They're both appellations of France. Pouilly-Fumé is located in the Loire Valley and is known for white wines based on sauvignon blanc, just like its neighbouring appellation of Sancerre (which also makes small quantities of rosé and red).
Pouilly-Fuissé, on the other hand, lies in southern Burgundy, and the wines can only be made from chardonnay. It’s easy to confuse the two.
How are cool-climate chardonnays different from other chardonnays?
I like to think of the distinction metaphorically. Warm-climate chardonnays run on gas, cool-climate chardonnays run on electricity.
Grapes grown in cool climates tend to yield crisper wines. That’s because lower temperatures preserve natural fruit acidity. In the case of white grapes, cool conditions also produce flavours leaning more toward the mouth-puckering citrus and orchard-fruit spectrum (think apples and peaches) rather than tropical flavours (such as pineapple or mango). That’s the case with chardonnay, the world’s most popular white wine. Chablis in Burgundy, one of the most revered chardonnay zones in the world, is considered a cool climate. Chablis is all about high-voltage tension.
The fruit profile of such grapes also tends to inspire a more delicate approach to winemaking. Chardonnay is sometimes referred to as a "winemaker's grape." This captures the fact that chardonnay typically is left to age in oak barrels (unlike other whites, such as riesling and pinot grigio). More often than not, its flavours find a natural complement in the vanilla and toasty profile contributed by maturation in charred wood. The type of barrels (new or used) and length of contact are matters of the winemaker's discretion. Some chardonnays, including many Chablis, see no oak at all. Generally speaking, the hotter the climate, the more a winemaker will be tempted to lavish it with oak, and it's easy to go too far. A ripe, fat, tropical-styled chardonnay can end up tasting like the product of a lumber yard rather than a vineyard. The flipside is that the wine can end up losing the special fruit character imbued by the local soil and microclimate, the French concept of terroir. A kiss of oak is nice, but too much is the kiss of death.
I’d argue that good producers in cool climates tend to be especially sensitive to this. They’re wary of too much oak because their leaner, crisper fruit compels them to be. And fans of cool-climate chardonnay like to keep them on their toes. Again, I’m generalizing. There are many inferior, overoaked cool-climate chardonnays out there. It’s a fine balance.
Are pale rosés better than dark ones?
No, that’s fake news (to borrow someone else’s catchphrase). It’s time to put the pale-supremacy propaganda to rest.
It has become fashion in these pink-soaked wine times for producers to dial back colour saturation in their rosés, as I wrote about in a column on millennial pink. The implication is that such wines are more likely to taste like the delicate and often elegantly dry pink wines of Provence in southern France, which many connoisseurs consider the ultimate rosé style. Sometimes that comparison will have merit, but often not. In truth, there’s no strong correlation between (pale) colour and quality.
A rosé’s tint is the product of several variables. Two happen to be particularly important: grape variety and soak time. Depending on the varieties used (all pink wines ultimately get colour from pigment in red skins), it could turn out super light in colour, especially when such grapes as pinot noir, grenache and gamay dominate the mix, or more deeply saturated, as in the case of mourvèdre, cabernet sauvignon and merlot, and none of that impinges on quality. Soak time refers to how long the juice is kept in contact with skins. Longer means darker, which, again, provides no reliable indication of quality.
I know a top sommelier in France who is fed up with the current anemic-pink trend because he feels it’s built on a lie. Colour is strongly associated with flavour intensity, he says, and darker rosés tend to deliver more flavour (whether you like the flavour or not). It’s one reason he’s a huge fan of Tavel, the dark-coloured rosé that takes its name from an appellation in the southern Rhône Valley. Most connoisseurs would agree that deep-pink Tavels are the most “serious” and cellar-worthy rosés on the planet.
In food circles, it’s said that we eat with our eyes. That’s true of drinking, too.
What kind of wine is claret?
Claret is a British nickname for red Bordeaux wine. It’s an Anglo corruption of clairet, which basically means “clear” or “pale-coloured.” This may seem strange given that red Bordeaux wines, made mainly with cabernet sauvignon and merlot, tend to be fairly dark, certainly in comparison with, say, Burgundy and most Loire Valley reds. But deep purple was not always Bordeaux’s signature. In the Middle Ages, when the term claret likely originated, the predominant shade of Bordeaux wines popular in England (the big export market) was much lighter, more comparable to rosé or light Beaujolais. And the flavour was very light as well.
Veteran wine writer Hugh Johnson had this to say about it in his book The Story of Wine: “… from the outset it seems almost certain that very light red or rosé was the best wine (apart from white) that Bordeaux had to offer – or at least that it suited English taste, and the demands of the voyage to England.”
Imagine that. The most venerated wine region in the world built its early global reputation on a style of wine entirely different from that for which it is celebrated today. (In other words, great terroir for rosé eventually morphed into great terroir for full-bodied, tannic reds – all because of a change in consumer preferences, not because the soil changed.)
Not only were the red wines likely too bitter for British palates of old and lacking in sufficient acid freshness to survive the sailing trip, they were not even made from cabernet sauvignon or merlot. It would take a couple of hundred years before cabernet sauvignon and merlot would surface, genetically speaking, and become Bordeaux signatures.
And yet, despite the shift in colour from light to dark, many British wine lovers cling to the term claret. Most, I’d venture to guess, have never sampled an actual Bordeaux rosé, which – by the way – you can still find from time to time if you try very, very hard.
What’s the difference between late-harvest wine and icewine?
Both are sweet. The difference is a matter of degree. Or, you might say, a matter of degrees.
Grapes for late-harvest wine are left on the vine for several weeks or in some cases months after the usual harvest. With more time, the berries become riper and thus sweeter. They may also begin to lose water through evaporation, further concentrating the natural fruit sugars. All that sweetness turns out to be literally too much for the yeast in the fermenting vat, which tires out and dies before it can convert all the sugar into alcohol to create a dry wine. Wine producers refer to this leftover sweetness as residual sugar. Presto: a luscious dessert elixir.
Grapes for late-harvest wine may be picked in November (it all depends on the regional weather). Icewine, by contrast, is an extreme version of the late-harvest style, and the grapes are usually picked in December or early January, during the first sustained drop in temperature. Shrivelled berries are harvested and gently pressed while still frozen. The water component (which accounts for roughly four-fifths of the fluid volume) remains trapped inside the skins as ice and gets discarded. The flavourful juice (the other one-fifth of the volume) is still fluid and seeps out into the fermenting vat. That super-concentrated juice goes on to yield icewine, an extremely sweet, syrupy nectar.
What’s the difference between Champagne and cava?
About $25. (Rim shot, please.) That price difference might suggest a much bigger gap in quality than is often the case.
Champagne comes from France, of course, specifically the chalky, rolling hills of the region that gave the wine its name. The king of sparkling wines, it's based on three grapes, pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier (sometimes from just one and often from two or all three). Besides the chalk and cool climate, which impart crisp nerve and complexity to the wine, it has another defining feature that distinguishes not just Champagne but most high-quality sparkling wines. It gets its bubbles by way of a second fermentation that takes place inside each bottle. That step, sometimes called the Champagne method, involves adding yeast and a sugar solution to bottles of finished still wine, then capping the bottles tightly to contain the resulting carbon-dioxide pressure. This stands in contrast to industrially manufactured sparkling wines, such as prosecco from Italy, most of which get their bubbles by way of refermentation in huge pressurized tanks. Bottle fermentation is believed to account for greater complexity and elegance.
Cava comes from Spain, and while the vast majority is made in the northeast Penedes district surrounding Barcelona, it's not strictly the product of one region; it can be made in various parts of the country. The word merely means "cave" or "cellar" in Spanish, a reference to the fact the bottles were traditionally left to referment and age in underground caves. Spain uses its own distinct grapes, too, mainly xarello, parellada and macabeo.
So much for differences. Cava, like other, more expensive sparkling wines also employs the costly bottle-fermented technique. Curiously, however, it tends to cost a fraction of the price, typically $14 to $18 compared with $40-plus for Champagne. To my mind, that makes cava, as a category, one of the world's great wine bargains. Stellar bubbles at down-to-earth prices.
What are your three or five favourite uncommon wine varietals?
Such a tough question. There are too many to choose from, and my selections can change almost daily depending on my mood. But it's a great mental exercise. There are literally more than 1,000 grape varieties used in commercial wine production. Alas, all but a small minority are widely and regularly available. We all know the pop stars, such as chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot noir, pinot grigio, riesling, sauvignon blanc, syrah. So, let's forget about them.
The term "uncommon" is relative, of course. Does gewürztraminer qualify in your mind? If so, then it would be near the top of my list. I love its luscious texture as well as its heady aromatic characters of boldly fruity lychee, floral rose petal and spicy ginger. A white that rises to its greatest expression in Alsace, it's sumptuous on its own and an eye-opener when paired with spicy Asian dishes, including Indian curries.
But let's dig a little deeper. Italy, not France, is the grape-diversity capital of the world, with almost 400 native grapes in commercial production (versus about 200 for France). That may help explain why I most often think of Italian varieties when craving something out of the ordinary. Vermentino ranks up there, to be sure. The white grape conveys hints of citrus and flowers and can combine a delectably oily texture along with a scintillatingly vibrant counterpoint of crushed stones.
That stony, mineral-like quality tends to come through also in wines made from nerello mascalese, a red grape grown on the slopes of Sicily's Mount Etna, Europe's most active and tallest volcano. It's sometimes described as a cross between highly perfumed Burgundian pinot noir and the tannic, tart nebbiolo of Barolo fame. Think of it as two great wines in one.
Have you tried aglianico? It's not for everyone, given its high acidity and astringent tannins. But this powerful red from southern Italy, which excels on the volcanic hills east of Naples, can develop marvellous complexity in the cellar.
Lately I've been particularly smitten with assyrtiko, too. It's the signature white of Santorini, the Greek island, and can display a rare combination of rounded mellowness along with crisp acidity.
I’m hard-pressed not to include albarino, a white grape most closely associated with Spain. Crisp and clean, it displays electric tension, the sort of quality the French would call nervosité. Tension in wine is magical, and it stands in contrast to what so many “common” wines seem to be chasing with their heavy – and ultimately flaccid – fruitiness and heavy oak.
Yet some of these might be considered familiar compared with such gems as ciliegiolo, falanghina, greco, mencia, moschofilero, oseleta, ribolla and teroldego. I could cite many more obscure varieties, too, such as callet, grk, kisi, saperavi and timorasso, but you'd be hard-pressed to find any examples without travelling to their native sources in Europe (or the country of Georgia in the case of kisi and saperavi). The world beyond chardonnay and merlot is vast – and worth exploring, one eye-opening glass at a time.
Understanding prices and purchasing
Is there really a big taste difference between cheap and pricey wine?
Sometimes yes, sometimes no. It’s foolish to assume that spending more on a bottle will always mean greater pleasure.
To some extent, very fine wines do cost more to produce. They tend to be made from vines that are laboriously pruned to yield fewer but more concentrated grapes. Less fruit per acre means higher cost per bottle. And those grapes are often hand-sorted to ensure that only the best berries make it into the fermenting vat. They may also spend extended time in oak barrels, which adds considerably to production costs.
But supply and demand can figure heavily into the equation, too. The rarer the wine, the more expensive it tends to be – regardless of quality, which can be very subjective. Is a $100 bottle 10 times "better" than one that sells for $10? It's a judgment call, and I think most people would be hard-pressed to answer yes.
Often, trained tasters will in fact prefer a less expensive wine to a trophy label, especially when they taste “blind” (without the advantage of peeking at the label or sticker price). I once sampled a $115 California cabernet sauvignon in the company of several veteran wine writers, all of whom, including me, expressed shock at the price. Many awarded a higher score at the same tasting to a lovely $22 red Bordeaux, also made primarily with cabernet sauvignon.
And style preferences can play heavily into one's personal assessment, which is all that counts in the end. Grand cru Burgundies can easily exceed the $100 mark, not because they're always sublime but mainly because they come from storied vineyards and are produced in tiny quantities. But if your tastes run more toward full-bodied reds, such as Australian shiraz, chances are you will find more bang for your buck at $15 or $20. My advice? Drink the wine, not the label.
If a winery sells the same style at twice the price, will it be twice as good?
No. There's even a chance you'll like it less than the more affordable one. (Believe me, I've been to this rodeo many, many times before.)
Wine prices are not exactly based on a scientifically measurable hedonism scale. The situation is not analogous to, say, buying a Samsung 4K television versus a less-expensive Samsung 1080P (forgive the geek tech jargon). With a flashy new 4K you're getting what's known as "ultra-high-definition" versus the 1080P's mere "high definition," a technology that's been the standard for a few years. In other words, you get many more pixels with 4K, and more pixels result in clearly better picture detail. In this case, there is a measurable and objectively conspicuous quality difference. That comb-over on Donald Trump's head? You'll see it more clearly on a 4K set.
Wine, alas, is not made of silicon (though there is silicon dioxide in the bottle glass). Many factors go into pricing. Not all such factors strictly relate to perceptible quality. For example, scarcity can play a big role. Many upper-tier wines are made in small batches from prized single vineyards that (theoretically) yield better fruit. Whether or not the wine tastes better to you or to me rarely matters; it's generally going to be priced higher simply because of supply-demand economics.
Production methods also frequently figure into the mix, and they don't always mean "better" wine, just different wine. Take Chianti as an example. A bottle from Tuscany labelled Chianti Classico will in virtually all cases be priced lower than the same winery's Chianti Classico "Riserva." The latter denotes a reserve wine, generally made from select, exceptionally ripe grapes that are held back from regular production for special treatment. These more concentrated wines typically are left to mature for much longer in expensive oak barrels, where they acquire stronger vanilla-like and spice flavours as well as firmer and more astringent tannins (to render them more cellar-worthy). Oak barrels represent a huge investment for most wineries. But is a riserva always "better" than a winery's normale Chianti? You decide. I know at least one avid, long-term Chianti collector who tends to prefer the regular style of Chianti Classico to the fatter "riserva" style. I also know people who prefer a simple vanilla ice-cream cone to a banana split.
How do you pick a cellar-worthy wine for a gift?
Price is a major issue, sadly. Only fine wines with sound balance and good tannin-acid structure can blossom into their late teens. Wine styles with the best long-term track records (and you can add the qualification “expensive” for each in this list) include red Bordeaux, red burgundy, Rhône Valley reds such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape, California cabernet sauvignon, German riesling, vintage-dated champagne, Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino; vintage port and Madeira. That’s by no means a complete list, but it’s a good guideline.
The other big consideration is vintage, or the harvest year designated on the label. Like people, wines have good years and bad. This is where you may want to consult the Internet for a so-called vintage chart. These charts list a variety of regions around the world along with a corresponding point score (out of 100). That score reflects the general quality of the growing season in the region. The higher the number, the more likely a wine from the region will be built for the long haul.
Is there a comparable but cheaper substitute for Cristal Brut Champagne?
Yikes. That's a tall order. Cristal is the iconic $300 Champagne knocked back by hip-hop moguls and Hollywood royalty (often straight from the bottle in Cadillac Escalades and hot tubs).
The full name is Louis Roederer Cristal, and it does happen to be a gem. Packaged in a distinguished clear-glass bottle wrapped in ultraviolet-filtering cellophane, it is one of the most coveted big-brand Champagnes, along with Dom Perignon and Krug.
The wine was born in 1876. Tsar Alexander II of Russia was a Roederer fan and had asked the house to come up with a bottle that could be distinguished from the "common" dark-glass Champagne making the rounds. (According to alternative variations of the story, he wanted to make sure it wasn't laced with poison.)
Ostentatious though the packaging may be (call me cynical, but I suspect it's the key reason free-spending showbiz types have gravitated to it), the liquid inside is awesome. The thing is, it's a vintage Champagne, which means it's bottled only in the best years. Most other Champagnes are blended from juice produced over several years and are crafted to taste pretty much the same year after year. Vintage Champagnes don't conform to a "house" style in the same way.
What does Cristal taste like? I'd say it varies significantly from vintage to vintage, and that's part of any vintage Champagne's attraction.
Peruse the critical reviews and you’ll find a wide swath of adjectives, from “stony” and “chalky” to “fruity” and “yeasty.” I’m not the world expert on the wine by any means, and I no doubt have consumed less “Cris” than celebrities. But I’ll say two things with confidence: It tends to have a seductively round mid-palate, usually suggesting brioche pastry, which I love; and it’s designed to age gracefully, something I suspect makes little or no difference to most showbiz personalities who immediately stash it in their Sub-Zero fridges.
Is there such a thing as a "baby" Cristal? Not really. But let me offer two feeble answers. First of all, consider Louis Roederer Brut Premier. That's the excellent, entry-level, non-vintage Champagne from the same house. It costs about $70 a bottle. Not cheap, but compared with Cristal it may sound like a steal. Roederer also happens to make less expensive and very fine bubbly in California. Their top sparkling wine from that property, Roederer Estate l'Hermitage Brut, is superb, at about $55. Some people have suggested it comes close to Cristal in quality. One of the first vintages I tried, back in the mid-1990s, came pretty close. The lower-end Roederer Estate Brut costs about $29 and is splendid, too.
There are more inexpensive Champagnes, but are they any good?
Wine deflation – it seems like a dream, doesn’t it? Short answer: Yes, they’re generally pretty good. I should specify that “Champagne” refers to the bona fide sparkling wine of the eponymous region of northern France. There exist many fine bubblies for much less than $40, including those of Canada, California, New Zealand, Australia and South America. Even France produces lovely sparkling wines made according to high-quality Champagne standards that are labelled “Crémant,” which tend to run about $20
Most authentic Champagnes do, indeed, orbit around the $60 mark, with many super-luxury, cellar-worthy cuvées priced in the three digits. Here’s one theory for the downward trend. There’s an ocean of Champagne in France and for the longest time only a smattering of big designer brands enjoyed a stranglehold on distribution in North America. Those brands have been able to push up prices thanks to a new, growing population of wine aficionados willing to spend on recognizable, highly promoted bling beverages. In some cases those familiar wines are made by companies with financial interests in the luxury fashion trade, where high prices create the cachet of exclusivity.
And so a vacuum emerged. Lesser-known brands gained traction with retailers willing to supply the rest of us with decent Champagne that comes without the built-in expense of humongous advertising budgets. A parallel trend has taken root, too. Many Champagne grape-growers that used to sell their crop to the huge, dominant Champagne blending houses like Veuve Clicquot and Mumm now have taken to bottling their own wines on a small scale. These so-called "grower Champagnes" are in many cases just as interesting – if not more – to many consumers as those of the large blending houses.
There's never been a better selection of fine bubbly on the market.
In Ontario, how do you order wines not available at a local LCBO?
You have several options, and it all depends on which wines you seek.
Perhaps you have your eye on specific wines that happen to be carried by other LCBO locations in Ontario (but simply not your local store). In this case it’s possible, in principle, to have the wines ordered in by your local store manager. This is called an interstore transfer, an underappreciated free service offered by Ontario’s liquor board. The request must be initiated by your local store manager, whose staff can access a record of quantities and locations around the province to source the products. Technically, there is no minimum quantity (it could be a single bottle), but the local manager may be reluctant in the case of consumers who simply want, say, a single can of beer. There are, after all, costs to the LCBO or importer associated with shipping.
If, on the other hand, you’re looking to expand your horizons beyond the retail choices available at the LCBO, you can do that, too, though the process is slightly more involved. About 125 importers in the province participate in what’s known as the consignment program, which is unique to Ontario and which permits these agents to warehouse and distribute specialty products (not just wine but also spirits and beer) by the case. Mainly it’s a service designed for restaurants that like to carry offbeat selections produced in quantities too small to merit widespread distribution across the LCBO’s more than 600 locations. But it can also be accessed by the general public. The only caveat is that you must commit to a one-case minimum. Twelve bottles is the typical case size, though some rare wines come in six-bottle cases, and that quantity still qualifies as a single order.
To source such products, you've got to know specifically what you're looking for and you must contact the Ontario agent directly. Is there a winery you're fond of whose products you may have enjoyed in a local restaurant or while on vacation that are not carried by the LCBO? You can search for the producer's (or "supplier's") name at drinksontario.com, the website of Ontario's beverage-alcohol distributors, and identify the local agent.
(As a technical matter, the LCBO, which controls all alcohol purchases in Ontario, does the “selling” even in this case; the agent merely places and takes delivery of the order once all taxes and LCBO handling charges are covered.)
The third option, if you’re interested in Canadian-made wine, is to order direct from the domestic producer. Most wineries turn out a much larger selection than is available in liquor stores. But ordering such wines from out of province (a B.C. or Nova Scotia wine if you live in Ontario, for example) remains a convoluted matter. While the federal government lifted the general ban on interprovincial direct-to-consumer sales, most provinces, including Ontario, have yet to significantly amend their own restrictions, which have been deemed (at least by the almighty liquor boards) to override the recent federal amendment. Two clear exceptions are British Columbia and Manitoba, which freely permit their residents to place out-of-province orders in quantities meant for personal consumption.
Can a defective wine be returned to the LCBO beyond 30 days?
The Liquor Control Board of Ontario, the provincial government retailer, will indeed accept returns of corked or otherwise defective products beyond the standard 30-day deadline. The shorter time frame applies chiefly to returns of unopened, “saleable” products that are being returned for other reasons (maybe you overpurchased for a party and were left with more alcohol than you need).
The LCBO, and certain other provincial liquor boards, as well as some of the better private retailers, basically take responsibility for defective products that they sell. Cork taint is a technical fault in a wine, produced by smelly but non-toxic pollutants that should be the winery’s responsibility to guard against. Similar faults that frequently afflict wine include hydrogen sulfide and an excess of vinegar-like volatile acidity. Wine is a magnet for many chemical and biological assaults, so it’s only natural that a retailer should have a strong policy guaranteeing the quality of what they sell.
While the LCBO may warn about a 30-day returns policy on its receipts, you’ll find the full disclaimer and more elaborate details about its policy in fine print online. Take note: No receipt is necessary for a defective product, and thus there can be no request to prove you purchased it less than 30 days ago. Just don’t try to return a bottle you purchased outside the province; the LCBO has ways of telling based on codes printed on the label.
Should you come across a cashier who for some reason attempts to block your corked-wine return, advise them to go to the main LCBO website and click on “About LCBO,” then “About Our Business,” then on the “complete details” area of the passage labelled Returns Policy. (Yes, it’s not easy to arrive at vital information on websites sometimes.) This is the relevant passage:
“If you feel you have purchased a defective product from the LCBO, you may return the product to any LCBO store for a full refund. No receipt is necessary in this situation.… Return of a faulty product must indicate immediate discovery. Defective returns will not be accepted when the majority of product is absent from packaging.”
That last point is critical. It means you can’t return a wine after you’ve consumed most of the bottle. Duh! As you should always do with wine, smell and taste a small sample before pouring out most of the bottle.