Kiwi (or is that grapefruit?) overdose

I really can’t stand it anymore. The grapefruit-fennel-green-pepper creature they call sauvignon blanc, in places down under. Really. I’ve had it. It’s like I’ve just had too much chocolate cake or sugar pie. The simple idea of eating more is repulsive.

I had some Kim Crawford sauvignon blanc from New Zealand, the other day, and now I’ve just been drinking some Klein Constantia 2006 sauvignon blanc from South Africa, and you know what? I feel like I’ve just switched from Canada Dry ginger ale to Schweppes ginger ale. The wines are dopplegangers. Same feeling, same fruit-surrounded acidity, same set of aromas, same taste overall. It’s flavorful, for sure. You can get why it’s attractive to so many people. But this impression of getting the same wine under two different labels has just done it for me.

I can’t help feeling that getting twin wines from two different countries – and one from a vineyard that is responsible for the incredibly distinctive and superbly elegant Vin de Constance – means that there is more chemistry at work here than geology and biology. Kiwi sauvignon blanc is doing well? By all means, let’s do the same! Add a little B254F yeast here, control temperatures this way, and voila, the recipe is reproduced. Forget individual character, this is globalized wine at its best (and worst).

I really should explore this more, but I will do so reluctantly.

Not all the New World falls under the spell of kiwi-grapefruit sauvignon, thankfully. I remember To Kalon vineyard fumé blanc (different name, same grape) from Robert Mondavi as a superb, refined experience, with a a whole different character and set of flavours. And Chilean sauvignon blanc, though playing in the same fruit leagues, has its own angle on the whole game.

If anybody out there knows a New Zealand or South African sauvignon blanc that goes off the beaten path, that has some mineral character, a different citrus fruit, or something different or other, please let me know. I’ll gladly amend myself.

In the meantime, I’ve just poured myself another glass of the Klein Constantia. The bloody thing just drinks itself.

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What is a Canadian wine?

My recent summer vacation in the quiet and picturesque Manitoulin Island, in Northern Ontario, was a bit ginger-peachy – as far as wines go, that is. I had some lovely wine from New Zealand, France and Ontario, but was quite depressed by the “Cellared in Canada” section of the LCBO stores.

A few years ago, it seems to me there was a clear distinction, in the stores, between wines bottled by Canadian companies with hardly any criteria, and VQA wines, which require all grapes used in the wines to come from Canadian vineyards and, if a specific region is mentioned (like Niagara), from the region in question.

Now, it’s all muddled together in a single section, and what’s terrible about it is some of these wines are hardly Canadian at all. If you look closely enough at the labels, you’ll find out that the bottles are made of “a blend of Canadian and domestic wines”. And according to all the information I’ve read, that amount of Canadian wine can be as low as 10% or maybe even none at all, according to a well-informed blog. Frankly, tasting a Jackson-Triggs sauvignon blanc “cellared in Canada” was an extremely bland experience. There was nothing unpleasant about the wine, but there was hardly anything to be said about it either. It was very pale and without any character.

Quite a contrast with, say, a Peninsula Ridge sauvignon blanc (very well-balanced, to an extent I’ve rarely seen in Niagara sauvignon blanc), a Clos Jordanne pinot noir (perhaps the closest thing to the spirit of Burgundy on this side of the Atlantic), a Château des Charmes single vineyard chardonnay (like the St David’s Bench, which I’ve always appreciated over the years), or a Hernder riesling (I’ve had several crisp, balanced and ageworthy cuvées), all VQA wines that have lots of character, and all express a sense of place. The very nice and very typical mineral character of the best Niagara chardonnay can’t be found in a “blend of domestic and imported wines”, now can it?

The fact that a Cellared in Canada wine (whatever that means) can sit alongside a VQA wine without any clear distinction is, in my opinion, a retrogade idea that can only weaken the image of Canadian wine, an image that has progressed remarkably with the quality of the wines since the late 1980s. By muddling the whole question, the companies and authorities that are allowing this lack of distinction are harming local production and confusing consumers who should be able to make a clear choice. It seems to me that the only ones who benefit from this are big producers who can make a profit from using really cheap bulk wine from Australia or Chile in their big volume labels. In terms of winemaking, it’s the equivalent of blueberry yogurt made without any blueberries – a deceiving marketing ploy.

And here’s a disturbing thing. That bland sauvignon blanc I had was proudly claiming on its label that Jackson-Triggs wines are official wines of the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games. Better yet, Jackson-Triggs has released a special line of wines called Esprit, as part of its sponsorship deal with Vancouver 2010. And guess what. The official press release fails to mention anything about where the wines come from, and from what I’ve seen of the labels or any other information, they don’t seem to be VQA.

I’ll try to investigate this matter further to find out exactly what is going on here, but I’m quite worried. Vancouver 2010 seems like an amazing opportunity to make the world discover the wines of Canada. And Vincor, the Constellation subsidiary that owns Jackson-Triggs and signed the sponsorship deal, has plenty of great Canadian wines in its portfolio (including the beautiful pinot noirs and chardonnays from Clos Jordanne, or NK’Mip Cellars, a BC aboriginal winery they distribute). However, if the Canadian wine industry is to be represented by cheap globalized plonk, what’s the point?

Mixing it up

There is a New World trend in wine that is intriguing, promising and annoying, all at once. It’s the habit of mixing varietals that don’t usually go together: chardonnay and viognier, verdelho and chenin blanc, touriga and tempranillo, etc. Australians do it with particular enthusiasm, determined to go, it seems, where no wine has gone before. There’s even a whole line of wines from Argentina based on that concept: Familia Zuccardi’s Fuzion brand. And other examples from Chile or the USA.

Sometimes the results are pleasant and harmonious, or really add up to something greater than the sum of the parts.  Like certain supertuscan blends of Bordeaux varietals and Sangiovese, or successful combinations of cabernets and shiraz.  Even more basic wines can do it well: Penfolds’ white Rawson’s Retreat is a blend of chardonnay and sémillon that is simple, accessible and, well, balanced. Which is probably the keyword that some winemakers forget as they seek to make daring, unusual blends.

For some producers, the fact that the blend is unusual seems to be the whole point, along with some notion of complementarity: freshness in one varietal, structure and richness in the other. Sometimes, going against the grain seems to be an end in itself. I’ve tasted mixes that should never have come together – and actually didn’t come together, even though they had been blended.

It’s just not that easy. There are historical reasons why certain blends have come together in different regions of the world, thanks to the way the climate favored certain varietals that came together properly in terms of flavors, textures, color and balance. Like sweeter, earlier ripening merlot with more tannic and tighter cabernet sauvignon in Bordeaux blends. Creating a new blend with varietals that have hardly established themselves in a new land, and trying to figure out how they’ll behave together is risky business, to say the least.

Mission impossible? Not really. But more care should be exerted by winemakers who choose that route. A hit or miss approach just doesn’t cut it. If it takes several years to build up a vineyard, it could be an idea for winemakers to give themselves many years of tasting and experimenting before releasing new, untested blends.