Tasting Note: Undercurrent Muscat-Sauvignon Blanc 2007 and other crazy wines from Creekside Estate Winery

Creekside is one interesting winery. They can make some very straightforward, accessible wines with a great quality-price ratio, as shown not only by their Estate series of wines (like that nice, pepper-strawberry driven shiraz), but also by the 60,000 some odd cases the same winemaking team makes for No. 99 Estates Winery, generally known as the Wayne Gretzky wines. Good stuff all around, star power or not on the label.

They can also make some serious, original reserve wines that are very often quite out of the ordinary. When I visited last summer with assistant winemaker Erin Harvey, I had the chance to taste a number of solid bottlings, including a delicious Close Plant riesling from the Butler’s Grant vineyard that I reviewed in a previous post. I was impressed by a 2007 Reserve Pinot Gris aged in French oak barrels, that was pretty wild and intense, with great spicy character and some wild aromas of prosciutto and cantaloup, and a long finish structured by a touch of bitterness.

I was also taken aback by the 2004 Lost Barrel, a mix of red grapes (“a bit of everything”, said Erin) made from the “tippings” (the dark, rich, sediment-laden stuff left at the bottom of barrels of red after they are racked) of top reds that are collected into a single barrel. After five years settling in oak, the wine showed up as a big, chunky, bloody, spicy, meaty, wild, wild thing with big whacks of fruit and intense flavors coming at you intensely. So much stuff that a slight whiff of volatile acidity felt refreshing, in all that unusual mass of vinous stuff.

Making a cuvée from the tippings is basically a crazy idea. But what’s beautiful about Creekside is that this crazy spirit leads to some of the most successful wines they make. (The spirit also permeates the way the cellar is organized: tanks are named after scientists, philosophers, filmmakers or… The Beatles. That last row of four tanks recently got a fifth one added, quickly named Yoko, as it was a late addition and proved to be a bit of a troublemaker. More on the workflow in this Creekside blog post.).

That’s where the Undercurrent series comes in – the place where Creekside winemakers really have the most of their winegeek fun. You want an almost-late-harvest sauvignon blanc? Why not. A once-in-a-lifetime cofermented blend of muscat and sauvignon blanc? You got it.

When I drove back to the Niagara, a couple of weeks ago, and stopped by to get a couple of bottles of the close-plant riesling, I also got myself a 500 ml bottle of this very unusual blend of varieties. We opened it this week, as a match to an oven-grilled halibut with herbs and olive oil, and a sort of corn-basil-sweet pepper salsa. Boy did that work well, as the mix between the freshness and slight grassiness of the sauvignon blanc and the highly aromatic, stonefruit-driven aromas and flavors of the muscat playfully blended with the sweetness of the corn or cut through the rich fish. One day after opening, the wine tasted even better, with a well-rounded feel and a touch of honey added to the mix.

The completely unusual aromatic profile explains why the label bears the words “Product of Canada” (showing it’s made from 100% Canadian grapes), rather than the usual VQA. The singular profile threw the VQA tasting panels for a spin, and since typicity is one of the factors that qualify a wine for the official appellation, the Muscat-Sauvignon Blanc got stock on its edge. It’s the VQA’s loss, really.

If you want to taste it, you’ll have to make your way to the winery. And do it soon, because that exact blend won’t be coming back. There is a 2008 blend of muscat, sauvignon blanc and gewurztraminer from 2008 on the way, but the addition of gewurz takes the whole thing in a very different direction. Another unique bottling – just like that 2007 sangiovese that my little finger tells me is also in the works…

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TasteCamp in Long Island: I AM drinking merlot

I can say one thing about last weekend’s TasteCamp East, organized by Lenn Thompson for a group of about 15 bloggers (see the whole list here, with very personal notes from Dale Cruse) who enthusiastically went around the vineyards of Long Island. I’ve never had so much merlot in so little time.

Actually, I can say two things about TasteCamp East: I’ve never had so much merlot, and never before had I enjoyed it that much.

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Bud break on a merlot vine at Shinn Estate Vineyards

It’s not that I’ve never had good merlot – or at least, good merlot-based blends. For instance, I’ve enjoyed many good and some great Pomerols or Saint-Émilions where merlot was playing a leading role. But I tend to find more to please me in the Médoc, with cabernet sauvignon in the forefront. And years of being disappointed again and again by flabby or imprecise or just undistinguished varietal bottlings from the likes of California and Chile just brought my enthusiasm for merlot very close to ground level. 

So what was I doing in Long Island, where merlot is king? (more…)

Wine Blogging Wednesday 55: North vs South

I’m so stoked about hosting the 55th edition of the Wine Blogging Wednesday. It’s a nice number, too. A kind of symmetry, even, since I joined in on this collective tasting event for WBW 44.

As a Québécois frequently discussing wines with my American wine blogger friends, I thought that the perfect theme for “my” Wine Blogging Wednesday would be North vs South. 

But hey, it’s not a Civil War reenactment kind of theme, really. Nor a reminder of the victory of 1775, when Quebec City successfully repulsed an assault from American troops under Arnold and Montgomery.

Unless you want it to be. Wine-wise, I mean.

If this is what you want to do, (more…)

Published in: on February 23, 2009 at 9:13 am  Comments (56)  
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In the California Vineyards: A quick stop at Alpha Omega

I’m finally getting around to blogging about the wineries I visited in California, last fall, after the Wine Bloggers Conference. Maybe I needed to let all that wine tasting and winery visiting steep for a while. Or maybe I just got very busy when I returned from California and never got around to it. Or maybe I’m just a procrastinator, I don’t know.

Anyway, the first winery I’ll tell you about is one I hadn’t originally plan to visit, but am glad I did after all: Alpha Omega. If I went, I have to say that it’s not because of the… ahem… modest name or because Michel Rolland is a consulting winemaker there.

I’d heard about Alpha Omega because (more…)

It’s not easy being green: a post about Bordeaux, carbon and biodynamics

Two relatively unrelated bits of reading got me going on the whole question of wine and the environment, yesterday. The first one was a  Decanter News item about the Bordeaux wine industry’s Carbon initiative, and the steps it was proposing to curb the region’s greenhouse gas emissions (thanks to Tim, from Winecast, for tweeting it). The second one is a post on Alder Yarrow’ Vinography blog reacting to a (hard-hitting? scathing? vicious?) article in SF Weekly denouncing biodynamics as “Voodoo on the Vine”.

In the Decanter article, I was surprised to see how little the Bordeaux industry seems to be questioning vineyard practices, in its assessment of its carbon footprint. Of the 200,000 tons of carbon produced, says the report (as quoted in the Decanter article): “45% came from production of materials such as glass and cork,12% through moving personnel around,10% on vinification processes, and 18% on transportation of wines.”

According to this assessment, sales trips would account for more carbon than the chemical components of viticulture (like herbicides, pesticides, etc.). I’m skeptical. One possible explanation is that Bordeaux would only be counting carbon, and not greenhouse gases as a whole: agriculture produces more methane and nitrous oxide (NO2) than carbon dioxide. I’m not sure. But the fact that reducing the use of fertilizers and pesticides is an afterthought in this whole assessment seems odd to me.

In the second case, I was a little depressed at seeing how the SF Weekly writer, Joe Eskenazi, described the “aggressive marketing” of biodynamic wines and the “kooky” reliance of biodynamic producers on supernatural explanations. Many of the examples he gives (like some of Rudolf Steiner‘s more esoterical beliefs) are quite striking and troubling – even though his disgust at seeing blood from cowheads is pretty ridiculous too. Eskenazi is clearly out to show that biodynamics is some kind of extremely weird sect, and to do that, he takes the most extreme examples he can find.

Funny enough, though, when I discussed biodynamics with most producers I’ve met, their goal was not to connect with astral forces so much as to reinforce the vines’ natural defences, helping vines dig deep into the soil to get more from the soil, and to get better juice by promoting the health and harmony of the vineyard’s ecosystem. Many will discuss the visible transformation of manure and compost left in cow horns under the ground over the winter, not in terms of the elemental connections of cows to the Earth forces, but because of the mineral qualities that in all likelihood emerge from this change in appearance, smell, texture – in other words, biochemical composition. And in the end, their point is the following: the vines are healthier, the wine is better, and natural life in all forms is teeming throughout the vineyards.

And that’s where I feel a lot closer to Alder Yarrow’s point of view, from his frustration about the “maddening, paradoxical mixture of scientifically sound farming practices and utterly ridiculous new-age mysticism” found in the realm of biodynamics, to the clear qualities he sees in the wines themselves:

Some of my favorite wines in the world; some of the best wines I have ever tasted in my life; some of the wineries that seem to consistently make some of the highest quality wines I have ever experienced are produced biodynamically, and I don’t believe this is a coincidence.

Again, maybe a lot of these discussions, whether in Bordeaux’ Bilan Carbone or in the louder and weirder side of biodynamics, are brought on by the fact that being “green” is “cool”. In other words, by an interest in marketing, image, market share, etc., rather than a primary interest in making great wine in a healthy environment. I wrote a first post on my concerns about the potential greenwashing of organic/biodynamic wines (now including some very interesting comments by one Ned Goodwin) back in the spring, a post that, in many ways, corresponds to Alder Yarrow’s take on biodynamics.

I’m still as concerned about the tendency to put marketing and sales arguments above environmental arguments. A recent report published in the magazine of the Champagne winegrowers professional association, is entitled “Carbon assessment: a selling point”, and insists on the fact that going green would be good for sales – and that it may become essential, eventually, to enter certain markets. And here I was, naively thinking that reducing one’s environmental impact was about the environment.

As Alder points out in his blog post about skepticism and biodynamics:

[while] some wine producers are moving to make biodynamic wine because they think it will sell better, there are many more producers who have been making wine biodynamically for years, even decades without ever telling anyone about it, least of all the people who buy their wine.

In my opinion, the same applies to green initiatives in the wine world in general. Let’s just hope that, over time, we see (or actually, don’t see) more of the latter and that the former stumble and fail because their focus is in the wrong place. A healthy environment and better wine should be the main motivation here.

California Wine all tastes the same? Says who?

Well, finally back to blogging. After an intense weekend at the Wine Bloggers Conference, followed by four full days of running around Sonoma and Napa – and Fairfield, and Berkeley and San Francisco – and then returning to a new position at the newspaper in Quebec City, and mulling over about twenty different potential post subjects, I finally managed to focus long enough on one subject. And here it is.

One of the things that truly struck me, throughout the tastings I attended at the Wine Bloggers Conference and in the days that followed, was the great diversity of wines I tasted. Yes, there were a good lot of big, fruity, oaky cabernet sauvignons and chardonnays, but there was also a great deal more, in terms of grape varieties, climate variations and winemaking styles. More than I had expected, certainly.

Over my week, I had everything from grassy sauvignon blanc to jammy zinfandels, rustic carignan to (more…)

Poetry in a bottle, and all the hard work that goes into it

Opening a bottle, pouring yourself a glass, sensing the complex aromas and flavors, the velvety texture: that’s the pleasure of wine.

But to get there, it’s good to remember just how much hard work has been put in by everyone that’s hard at work in the vineyards and cellars. As Wayne Young writes on the Bastianich Winery blog:

There’s  romantic misconception about the harvest… Grape Picking. Most people imagine lovely ladies in sun-dresses happily carrying their wicker baskets of beautiful fruit through the vineyards…

I would rather spend 8 hours in the cellar working with tanks and pumps and hoses, than 4 hours picking grapes. It’s messy, buggy, sticky, hot, nasty work.

Wayne has been doing a great job giving a sense of what harvest is all about, by describing everything from the equipment and how it’s used to fermentation, grape varieties, the method of drying grapes by appassimento, wasp attacks and the quick onset of a storm, just as fresh grapes are waiting to be brought into the winery. In other words, (more…)

Regional Wine Week: Quebec wine, now ready to drink

In the same that California is no longer exclusively synonymous with wine in the United States, Niagara is no longer the only game in town for Canadian wine. Not that either place is losing its importance. Rather, it’s the growth of viticulture all over North America that is truly remarkable. After all, if Poland can get into the winemaking game, why not Poland, ME – or for that matter, why not Quebec?

That’s what the Regional Wine Week, the kickoff to the Regional Wine Writing Project, brainchild of Dave McIntyre and Jeff Siegel, is all about: getting the word out about all the great wine being produced in lesser-known areas of our continent. A web site, DrinkLocalWine.com, has been set up, and connects you to close to thirty wine writers, bloggers and/or journalists who have come on board.

I found out about the initiative on (more…)

Death in the Vineyards

Reading the wine news, these days, it seems like the Grim Reaper is in harvest mode. Three significant figures have died in recent days: Didier Dagueneau, rebel vigneron from the Loire, Anthony Perrin, from Château Carbonnieux in Pessac-Léognan, as well as Bailey Carrodus, founder of Yarra Yerring, in Australia.

All three were credited with bringing their estates to the forefront, and being driving forces for improvement in the wines of their respective regions.

Beyond the sad news themselves, these deaths beg the question (more…)

Got corked wine? We want your data.

A few days ago, I started a discussion on the Open Wine Consortium regarding the actual prevalence of cork taint in wines. It followed a previous blog post on data from the Société des alcools du Québec, our very own state monopoly, that suggests cork taint should be present in well below 1% of all wine sold.

Quite a discussion that has been. Fiery at times, even. The lack of reliable data was regularly cited – and not really answered.

That’s when we got a suggestion from (more…)