Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Report from: Return to Terroir – Saturday February 9, 2008

I won't go as far as saying it was a veritable who's who of the Ontario wine world, but there sure we're a lot of recognizable faces about. John Szabo was hard at "work" tasting the multitude of wines, as was Michael Vaughn, Graham Duncan (of Now Magazine) and David Lawrason, who was so busy I never saw any sign of him, though people said he was there. Beppi Crosariol (from the Globe and Mail) questioned winery principals with tape recorder in hand. At one point, my buddy and fellow wine-writer Dean Tudor leaned in to me and asked, "Have you tried the cheese?" To which I replied, "Have you tried the chicken?" (Maple smoked chicken from Beretta Organic Farms in Kingsville - outstanding). The boys from Tawse were there (winemakers Brian and Paul), so was Norman Hardie (Norman Hardie winery in Prince Edward County), Jens Gemmrich (of Ontario's only organic winery FrogPond Farm) and Elena Galey-Pride of Southbrook, who had been sitting in lectures since ten that morning (it was four in the afternoon when we bumped into each other), we had a dizzying conversation about vineyards and wineries and how each gets classified as either organic or bio-dynamic (Southbrook will become Ontario's third certified organic vineyard later this year - August 2008, if I got my dates straight). Robert Paul, Sommelier of Eastdell, pointed me in the direction of his favouite wine, and I returned the favour an hour later to Warren Porter of IronGate/Sommelier Service. It’s amazing any of us got any tasting done with all the hellos and handshaking we had to do.

But enough about the “who” … it’s the “what” that has brought us all together. The words organic and biodynamic have been flying around like crazy of late. You see them in articles, in Vintages magazine and they are heard on the lips of winemakers and winery owners everywhere ...what does it all mean? Well in its essence it's about the “return to terroir": allowing the grapes to grow naturally, free from pesticides or other man-made interference ... bio-dynamics is the extreme – while organic is the umbrella it falls under. In an essay, written by Nicolas Joly called "Is Biodynamic Wine-Growing A Myth or Reality?" Nicolas sums up the idea of organic/bio-dynamic wines like this, "… the wine needs to remain in good health and to manifest its appellation. This explains why more and more choose biology or biodynamics as the only method which effectively links the vine to its environment."

In speaking with Jens of FrogPond, he said the one stumbling block for organic wines is the sulfur issue - organic wines have been given a bad rap because the earlier wines to enter the marketplace did not use sulfur/sulphites in the wines ... sulfur helps to stabilize the wine and makes it transportable, "It's fine if you are just storing it yourself on your property, but it won't make the long journey to market." Jens told me a story about a Riesling he made, in the early days, without sulfur, he shipped it off to his family in Germany, "It was vinegar by the time it got their," he said, "sulfur is natural, it comes from nature, so it should be deemed organic." A notion echoed by Southbrook’s Galey-Pride.

So, after all this talking you're probably wondering how these wines tasted. Well, I have a list of favorites below to share with you; but let me say that organic wine comes at a price, bottles range from $15.00 (rare) to $200+. I never got to the wines in the upper price range, though Dean Tudor encouraged me to get "over there" and try them, I still have no idea where he was pointing - besides I got waylaid at the Zind Humbrecht table. Also, at the event, I noticed a plethora of wineries from France, where this type of winemaking/growing has been practiced for years; of the 46 wineries in attendance, 31 were of French origin – Italy was next with five, Spain four and the U.S. three – Australia, Austria and New Zealand made up the rest.

Coming soon ... (two to look for)

You've probably noticed your Vintages magazine has had its share of organic wines popping up here and there … and there’s more on the way. In August 2008, look for Domaine Cazes 2005 Ego, a well priced ($15.00) fruit forward beauty. A blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre made completely in stainless steel. Nose and taste were dominated by red fruits with black licorice and sour cherry on the finish, very elegant, with a bit of an herb quality to it. Cazes 2005 Alter is available through private order only, it sees barrel aging for about one year and adds vanilla to the above mix.

Also coming through Vintages, in October 2008, will be this incredible wine from Montirius, their 2005 Vacqueyras Le Clos ($29.95). Le Clos is an 8 hectare vineyard planted with 50% Syrah and 50% Grenache (the blend of the wine is made up the same way) - and the vines are eighteen years old (or was it 80? – with the din of the crowded room behind me I couldn’t make it out – but 18 sounds right). The vineyard itself is surrounded by a ten-hectare oak forest - this is a perfect example of terroir getting into both the grapes and the resulting wine. All stainless steel made, though you'd swear, upon tasting, you got woodsy tannins – this comes from the surrounding forest, which also imparts some forest floor character to the wine. The smells are beautiful: blackberry, cassis and that forest floor, previously mentioned - while in the mouth good firm tannins and dark fruit ... it's a beauty. Also from Montirius are the Gigondas (80% Grenache / 20% Mourvedre - fruity and lush) and the Garrigues (70% Grenache / 30% Syrah – great fruit and pepper).

Favs ...

There was no way I was gonna taste all the wines, so I had to pick and choose my way through the show. A real fav turned out to be Tres Sabores (three flavors), from California. There I met owner and winemaker Julie Johnson - she talked about "winemaker’s passion", and it really showed in her bottles. Limited to between 200 cases (Cabernet Sauvignon) and 1000 cases (Porque No, a blend of Zin and Syrah). This Zinfandel focused winery was my hit of the show. The 500 case, $39.00, 2004 Rutherford Zinfandel spends a year and a half in French oak and has a great red fruit and red licorice nose, followed on the palate with sweet red fruit, plums and a bit of jamminess (but in a good way). The “Porque No?” ($30.00) is an 80/15/5 blend of Zin, Petit Syrah and Petit Verdot - lots of smoky red fruit on the nose, with a black fruit and pepper taste. The Cab Sauv ($57 - $64) has deep rich black fruit and thick tannins, there’s even a bit of a floral element on the finish. All these wines were fantastic.

My favorite white came from Domaine Marcel Diess of Alsace - the Burg 2004 ($63) is a blend of all fourteen grape varieties they grow, it's beautiful nose sucked me in and its complexity in the mouth kept me re-tasting over and over, I just kept picking up more and more flavors. Their 2004 Altenberg de Bergheim ($93) is another fourteen grape blend, but this time all the grapes have been botrytis affected, so there's tasty sweetness derived from the tropical fruits and some spicy-ness. The Mambourg 2004 ($109) is a blend of about seven or eight grapes, all with the word “Pinot” in front (Gris / Blanc / Noir / Meunier …) fruity and minerally this one was delicious as well as unique (all wines private order only).

Affordable White …

Vinexx Representative, Steve Drotos, dragged me over to his table (well, he asked really nicely anyway) to try the Albet i Noya 2007 Xarel-Lo Classic ($15.00 - private order). This one was not only well priced, but was fruity and appealing with lots of tropical and peach notes - nice for summer. By the same producer (in red this time), the 2005 La Milana ($29.00) is made from Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Caladoc (a crossing of Grenache and Malbec) … fourteen months in new French barrels has given this wine a spicy characteristic that melds well with the fruit.

A Little Chunk of Land ...

Telmo Rodriguez, of Compania de Vinos Telmos Rodriguez (I suspect you can make the connection here), introduced me to a bottle of 2004 Altos de Lanzaga ($92.50) from the Rioja. But “Rioja is too big a designation,” he explained, "these grapes [100% Tempranillo] are grown on a specific 4-hectare piece of land in the village of Lanzaga ... true village terroir." Only 4000 bottles were made of this sweet-oaked, smooth red and black-fruited beauty.

Others of Interest ...

Castagna Vineyard, the only Australian representative, showed off a few wines. One, the 2004 Genesis Syrah ($94.20 - #53298) - had a sweet and spicy note with a touch of floral (I’m guessing there’s Viognier in here). The 2005 Un Segreto - Sangiovese / Syrah (109.95) - was spicy with some anise and minty qualities, though the red fruit finish was the clincher.

Chateau Romanin, from Provence, had a 2004 La Chapelle Romanin ($21.00 - private order) - made from primarily Syrah, Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon with a bunch of minor grapes thrown in for good measure. It had a nutty flavor and smell that probably comes from the almond and olive trees that also grow on the property – peculiar in a red, but not unappealing. Delicious actually.

Domaine du Traginer 2004 Cuvee Capates ($70.00) is 50% Syrah and the other 50% is made up of Grenache, Carignane and Mourvedre, great red berry nose, firm tannins, black fruits and cedar in the mouth.

Four Deadly Zind(s) ...

Final stop of the day was the Zind-Humbrecht table. Located in Alsace, you've probably seen the Zind name on the shelves of the LCBO. They poured four wines from 2005, and all were amazing, if unpronounceable: Riesling Gueberschwihr ($39.85 - #686 246) – peachy, green apple, floral finish; Gewurztraminer Herrenweg de Turckheim ($43.60 - #993352) – floral and spicy with rose petals galore, and oh what a taste; Pinot Gris Rangen de Thann Clos-Saint-Urbain ($89.25 - #958918) - peachy, appley, touch of citrus, semi-sweet, great in the mouth; and finally, the piece-de-resistance, their Pinot Gris Clos Jebsal Vendage Tardive (late harvest - $57.00 - #70250 – 375ml) – in one word, stunning.

This day improved my opinion of organic wines; up until now 95 percent of what I had tried had been rubbish ... let's hope this trend (of good organic wine) continues. Am I convinced? I’m getting there.

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