Necessity has forced me to tidy up my office. Wine boxes and press releases had been piling up to the point where I would regularly lose my corkscrew. Come to think of it, that may help explain the high number of screw-cap wines I’d been reviewing lately.
Not that I’ve ever subscribed to the clean-desk-equals-clear-mind theory. I’m with messy Albert Einstein, sometimes credited – though perhaps apocryphally – with wondering: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what then is an empty desk a sign?”
I’ll grant that the act of tidying up can yield insights. As part of my sweep, I began cleaning my e-mail inbox, going back in time to discover more than a few unanswered reader emails. (Sorry!) In so doing, I learned to my surprise that I’ve been at this wine-reviewing gig at The Globe and Mail for exactly 20 years. In that time I’ve learned much about the world’s most captivating beverage, not least from readers. Often, what real people find important is refreshingly not what wine critics get most excited about. Permit me to share a few observations based on the broader world’s relationship to the vine.
Can you guess the No. 1 topic of inquiry in my mailbag? Wine additives. Many drinkers clearly view their chosen beverage with some trepidation. I suppose it’s similar to the world of cars. Automotive journalists love to review Ferraris and dwell on performance, whereas many of the rest of us care more about traction and airbags.
The main fear is sulphites, which are both added as preservatives as well as produced naturally during fermentation. But synthetic pesticides and clarifying agents made from animal by-products also raise plenty of concern. As part of this broadly defined health category I also would add tannins, which, while derived naturally from grape skins, seeds, vine stems and even oak barrels, are often mistakenly blamed for headaches.
In response to those fears, I have written more about wine and health, with help from wise scientists, than at times seemed to me necessary. But I’ve subsequently learned that the topic is a bottomless well. Every new column on myths surrounding sulphites, pesticides and tannins brings more questions and concerns about … sulphites, pesticides and tannins.
I suppose the moral for wine producers is that that organic wine – once a punchline on a par with Manischewitz and Baby Duck – will continue to boom. Ditto for vegan cuvées clarified without recourse to such substances as milk, fish bladders and egg whites.
Possibly in second place are the topics of cellar storage and bottle-resale value. People want to know how to protect their liquid investments with proper cellaring techniques. They also want to know how to distinguish whether a bottle that’s been heated or frozen or which simply may be long in the tooth may be worth drinking. Many readers, who either overbought through the years (the enthusiastic collector’s avocational hazard) or who came upon dusty old bottles in a late grandfather’s attic, also want to know how to unload their booty, preferably at a profit.
To that final question, the official Canadian answer is forgetaboutit. It’s illegal in this country to sell beverage alcohol without the express authority of a provincial liquor board or God (and the former tend to believe they are also the latter). Readers with a serious, trophy-bottle stash would probably do better to hire an agent to sell it at auction in the United States or to donate it to a registered Canadian charity in return for a generous tax receipt invariably valued at more than the actual liquid.
In third spot among popular requests is the personal recommendation: wines for weddings, wines to commemorate a birth year, wines for the boss. Many people understandably prefer an exclusive, personalized suggestion rather than a bottle promoted in the paper. I try my best, but often I come up short of great suggestions when the question ends in: “Oh, and my price ceiling is $10, and I live in Flin Flon.”
The other big source of curiosity has to do with my favourite wines or wine regions. I imagine all critics, as well as all amateur wine enthusiasts, enjoy responding to this one. It speaks to our egos, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned in 20 years besides how to spell trockenbeerenauslese, it’s that wine geeks tend to be full of themselves.
Some of this week’s selections, below, reflect my preferences. Among whites, I love nervy Chablis perhaps most of all, though I would never turn down a glass of Condrieu or a serious Alsatian gewurztraminer. On the red side, my main jam is the Rhône Valley, whose savoury, herbal-spicy glories in my view can develop more arresting beauty over time even than red Burgundy, especially the syrahs of Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage. But I’ve also got lots of time for the earthy, woodsy, distinctively local reds of Tuscany, too.
And then there’s British Columbia, whose wines get better by the minute and compellingly span a wide range of styles and grapes, from full-bodied, full-throttle merlots and syrahs to tense, unoaked chardonnays to out-of-the-mainstream gruner veltliner, chenin blanc and marsanne. It is, without exaggeration, the greatest underdiscovered wine region on Earth.
A vacant desk may be a sign of a vacant mind, but I’m holding an empty glass at the moment and that means it’s time for a refill.
Joie Un-Oaked Chardonnay 2018 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 94 PRICE: $27.98
One of the finest unoaked, New World chardonnays I’ve tasted. Creamy, with great depth from lees contact and essences of tropical fruit and mineral. Sold out at the winery but available at Everything Wine in British Columbia at the above price, various prices at other private retailers in the west.
Petra Hebo Suvereto 2015 (Italy)
SCORE: 94 PRICE: $26.99
A superb blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and sangiovese from the Tuscan coast near Livorno. Full-bodied but not heavy, with a polished texture and gloriously Tuscan profile of cherry, leather and horse-stable funk along with salt and pepper on the finish. An absolute steal at the price. Available only by the 12-bottle case from the excellent direct-order portfolio of Noble Estates in Ontario, nobleestates.com.
Blue Mountain Pinot Gris Reserve 2016 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $27.90
Plump and generous, with ripe pear, apple and welcome citrus-peel bitterness for structure. Marvelous. Available through bluemountainwinery.com.
Tantalus Den’s Block Old Vines Riesling 2016 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $52.17
This is as German as a riesling can get outside Germany, and that’s a big compliment. Yet there’s sunnier, riper fruit in the middle, reflecting the Okanagan terroir. It’s sweeter than off-dry, yet brilliantly balanced, with drippy peach and apricot along with zesty lime, flowers and Mosel-like minerality. It should cellar well for six years or more, developing honeyed notes. Available direct through tantalus.ca.
Meyer Pinot Noir McLean Creek Road 2017 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $34.88
Sweet berry jam. Smooth, almost sticky with concentration. Touches of caramel, baking spices and lively white pepper. Lovely. Unfined and unfiltered. Available only with a free membership to the estate’s wine club, mfvwines.com.
C.C. Jentsch Small Lots Cabernet Franc 2015 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $49.90
Ripe for a cabernet franc yet with plenty of savoury character. Cherries and cranberries with tobacco, dark-roast coffee and underbrush. Pleasantly chalky, with nuances of bacon and leather. Available direct through ccjentschcellars.com.
River Stone Corner Stone 2016 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $36.89
A five-grape Bordeaux-style blend, led by merlot and cabernet franc. Velvety, with good structure and backbone and suggestions of creamy cassis, chocolate, mint, black-olive tapenade and earth. Worth cellaring for up to eight years. Available direct, riverstoneestatewinery.ca.
Road 13 Syrah Malbec 2017 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $32.17
Road 13 was named 2018 Winery of the Year by the WineAlign National Wine Awards of Canada, a distinction richly deserved. The grapes here come from the Similkameen Valley. Full-bodied, polished and dense with blackberry, dark plum, vanilla and a tractor-load of black licorice and pepper. Very Rhône-like. Available direct through road13vineyards.com. (The Road 13 Roussanne 2017 white is superb, too.)
Joseph Drouhin Chablis Drouhin - Vaudon 2017 (France)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $29.95
Reliable bottling from a fine Burgundy négociant. Midweight, with good energy, autolytic character and saline snap. Classic Chablis character. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in Alberta, $27.15 in Quebec, $34.99 in Nova Scotia.
Dog Point Sauvignon Blanc 2018 (New Zealand)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $26.95
Light, crisp and flintier than the Flintstones. Vibrant, tense and laser etched with acidity, supporting flavours of grapefruit and lemon. Available in Ontario at the above price, $32.49 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta.
Perle de Roseline Côtes de Provence 2018 (France)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $19.95
Very dry, yet with silky roundness. Strawberry, watermelon, herbs and a whiff of smoke reminiscent of stony Sancerre. Available in Ontario.
Upper Bench Altitude 2015 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $46.10
A three-to-one blend of merlot and cabernet sauvignon. Very dry, chalky-dusty, with rich cassis, cherry plum, cocoa and tangy cedar, set against grippy tannins. Available direct through upperbench.ca.
Horseshoes and Handgrenades (Oregon)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $24.99
Fun name. But the equally playful back label is slightly misleading. “Garage Vins de Oregone” – a nod to the so-called garagiste boutique-winery movement of Pomerol in Bordeaux. Besides the Oregon syrah there’s some Washington state cabernet sauvignon and merlot in the mix, and you can distinctly sense them all. Full, smooth and very dry, with a chunky profile of cherry, vanilla, licorice, pepper and leather. Available only by the 12-bottle case from Noble Estates in Ontario, nobleestates.com.
Pierre Sparr Gewurztraminer 2018 (France)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $17.95
Alsace’s lavishly fruity, spicy-floral white grape gets a fine rendition from a solid producer. Off-dry and low in acidity, it’s rich with marmalade, tropical fruit and ginger spice. Great for spicy stir fries, curries or medium-to-firm cheeses. Available in Ontario.
Township 7 Rose 2018 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $21.97
Light peachy-pink. Dry and punchy with flavour. Fleshy, with strawberry and rhubarb, underscored by moderate but bright acidity. It looks Provençal and tastes like it, though perhaps with more fatness – and that’s nice. Available direct through township7.com.
Aveleda Colheita Selecionada Loureiro 2017 (Portugal)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $13.95
Light, crisp and flinty, with delicate citrus and lemongrass flavours and perfect acidity. A big value from a vinho verde leader. Available in Ontario.
Fantini Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo Rosé 2018 (Italy)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $10.95
Dry, midweight, sweetly ripe, with cherry candy and raspberry fruitiness, though dry on the finish and lifted by a hint of fresh herbs. Bargain rosé. Available in Ontario at the above price, $14.85 in Quebec.