A new look…

Happy New Year to all readers!

I hope 2017 is successful and fulfilling for all and hope also that the uncertainties we fear today turn out by year-end to have been the source of false worries.

As it is early in the new year this is the time when many of  us vow to turn a new leaf to improve our health, our wealth or our outlook. With this in mind I thought it would be a good time to introduce a new front face to The Winesights Reader.  I adopted the WordPress platform in 2010 when I launched this blog site and decided it was time to check out the WordPress Themes page to introduce some new life to my blogspot.

This is what I came up with…

à bientôt…

Copyright© W. John Switzer 2003 – 2017.


LCBO Vintages release – August 8, 2015 (WVN 220)

This weekend your Vintages shop has a fine selection of wines, the best values from which are predominantly French. I admit to an Old World bias in my profile and it continues to show with each successive update to this broadsheet. From time to time some New World wines make the list and herewith we have two such wines from Australia and Washington State.

Australia, South Australia – Yalumba The Y Series Viognier 2014

For a wine assembled from fruit from many places in South Australia, this is a pretty fine value. It has the aromatics, ripe fruit and slightly dense texture we expect from Viognier, accompanied by a fullish body and enough acid to make this wine a finely-structured wine for the price. This is one to serve with canapes or as a starter with a cold-summer soup.

Extra dry, white wine – $ 16.95 per bottle

USA, Washington – L’Ecole No. 41 Columbia Valley Semillon 2013

The Columbia Valley is a generally hot place – conditions that don’t usually work for Semillon. Somehow this wine works – it has higher alcohol due to the ripe fruit delivered in the heat of the region but there is a dose of Sauvignon Blanc and a bit of oak in the mix that makes for a fine and pleasingly fresh wine. The aromatics are delicate and the palate is complex with pear fruit, lees, tropical fruit elements and honey, all sitting on a fullish body. This wine will be a perfect match for rich pasta dishes.

Extra dry, white wine – $24.95 per bottle

France, Midi – AP Corbières Château de Treviac 2012

I consider Corbiéres to be the class appellation of the Languedoc. The wines from this area are consistently balanced with exceptional fruit expression, offered at equally exceptional (attractive) prices. This wine is a Syrah/Grenache blend and is true to the place with ripe red and black berry fruit aromas and flavours, herbal-garrigue flavours and ripe and round tannins. This is an exceptional wine that will be best this winter with stews and cassoulet.

Extra dry, red wine – $16.95 per bottle

France, Bordeaux – AOC Bordeaux Supérieur Château Plaisance 2009

Bordeaux Supérieur is not an appellation I would naturally seek out. Wines from this level in the Bordeaux spectrum tend to be insipid and green with a sameness from one bottle to the next that is consistently disappointing. This wine is an impressive indicator of the possibilities that may lie ahead for this chronic underperformer appellation: it is ripe, rich and complex and has fresh, still youthful fruit, firm tannins and a long finish. This is a wine for grilled meats.

Extra dry, red wine – $19.95 per bottle

France, Alsace – AOC Alsace Grand Cru Riflé Steinert Pinot Gris 2010

Regrettably we don’t see many Alsace Grands Crus (AGC) in Vintages. These wines are usually priced at levels where they fit more comfortably in the Classics section of the LCBO distribution scheme. In any case when an AGC appears we need to perk up and take notice. Here is a fine case in point: this is a concentrated wine with brilliant ripe tree fruits, honey, flinty minerals, a modest amount of residual sugar (balanced with juicy acid) and a very long finish. This is a wine you can enjoy now but one that I would put in my cellar for the next 7 – 10 years.

Medium, white wine – $24.95 per bottle

à bientôt…
Copyright© W. John Switzer 2003 – 2015.

Ullage, an addendum

First, my wife says she was not proud when she identified the odour of the offending wine as that of a wet basement. On the contrary, she was surprised, if not astounded, she got it right.

Second, my wife wanted me to point out that while the wine smelled of a wet basement, our basement is in fact bone dry.  The wine smelled like a wet basement because it was corked, not because the basement where it rested for a number of years was wet.

To elaborate, cork taint in a wine is not caused by wetness in its place of repose, it is caused by exposure to chlorine without adequate cleansing.

Hopefully this addendum is sufficient that I may return from the realms of the dog house.


P.S. I believe the best tasters are those who have no prior training in wine, who also happen to be female.

This sounds like a topic for a future posting.

à bientôt…

Copyright © W. John Switzer 2003 – 2015

The Rolls-Royce of Cavas

On my recent voyage to the Decanter World Wine Awards I spent a morning in the Penedès region of Spain. I took a 45-minute drive out of Barcelona with only one destination in my plan: a small Cava maker, located in the Cava capital, the little village of Sant Adurni d’Anoia (SAd’A). This village is a pretty town with a population of some 12,000 people, many of whom are involved in one way or another in the Cava industry.

SAd’A is the home of the largest Cava makers in the world of Cava, Freixenet and Cordoniu, as well as a host of smaller producers such as Raventos, Colomer Bernat and Lavernoya. These small makers are family operations with several generations of history. They sell most of their production in Spain so regrettably their wines get little exposure in export markets such as Canada.

Recall that Cava is made in a fashion similar to Champagne. That is, by the Traditional Method where a neutral, usually acidic base wine is bottled with the addition of wine, sugar and yeast (aka liqueur de tirage) so that a second fermentation occurs in the bottle. This process produces alcohol and carbon dioxide which is retained in the stoppered bottle and creates up to 6 atmospheres of pressure along the way. The yeast cells die when they have consumed all the sugar and the dead cells undergo a process called autolysis which produces a bread dough, brioche, yeasty aroma and flavour set. It is these aromas and flavours which distinguish traditional method wines from sparkling wines made using other methods such as tank, transfer and carbonation. The longer the wine lies in bottle on its side, the more complexity and autolytic intensity the wine develops. The best Champagnes spend at least three years in bottle before the yeast cells are disgorged and the final closure is placed on the bottle Indeed, some of the best cuvées will mature for up to 8 years, if the producer can afford to tie up his/her working capital that long.

Now back to SAd’A.

It was one of these local names I wanted to visit: Gramona.

Gramona is a business now administered by the fifth generation of the Battle and Gramona families, the historic founders of what is now Gramona. The moniker above, the Rolls Royce of Cavas was granted by the Belgian wine magazine, In Vino Veritas*. This quote may be the most enthusiastic but it is just one of the countless rave reviews the sparkling wines of Gramona have received for many years. Further, Gramona Cavas typically receive the highest scores for DO Cava wines in the annual Peñin Guide, the Bible of Spanish wine writing.

Why are these wines special? There are several factors that make Gramona different:

• The wines are aged in bottle after the second fermentation for extended periods, up to 12 years in the case of the Enoteca Gramona Brut Nature Gran Reserva. Most commercial Cavas spend the statutory minimum time on lees: 9 months.
• The dosage which is added to top up the bottle before the final cork closure is placed includes wine aged in a solera system, similar to the system used to mature and blend Sherry. This lends added complexity to the finished wine.
• Everything at Gramona is done by hand from harvest to final packaging of the wines for distribution to market.
• The blend is the best wines is comprised of two traditional Cava varieties: Macabeo and Xarel-Lo. The third Cava grape variety, Parellada, does not age well, so it is usually replaced with Chardonnay (notably one of the three main grape varieties of Champagne).
• All sparkling wines in the Gramona range have mousse of amazing persistence, complexity and length.

There is something else about Gramona I need to share.

The time spent at the Gramona winery was an absolute highlight after years of winery visits. My wife and I were the only visitors the day we were in SAd’A and we were treated to special tour of the caves under the winery where we witnessed the full process of disgorgement and final bottling. This process is done by hand with only a modest piece of equipment used to top up the bottles and apply the final cork closure. This is similar to the experience you would find at a grower/maker (récoltant-manipulant) in Champagne but the difference at Gramona was the depth of knowledge and enthusiasm of our guide. She had an answer for every question and when she didn’t have it at her fingertips she knew where to get it.

There is a meaningful difference that is palpable when the front-line staff in the cellar door operation know their stuff. If you seek to differentiate your wines on quality then every aspect of your business must reflect that aspiration.Wineries of Ontario, listen up!

I could go on but there is one major disappointing factor in all this. The wines of Gramona are imported into parts of Canada by a Vancouver-based agent, Christopher Stewart. Unfortunately Ontario is not one of the markets where Stewart makes the wines available. Rats!

So, you may ask why am I wasting space on a wine not available to readers? Simply because it is yet another story of wines that we miss due to dysfunction in our system. Gramona makes a very small amount of sparkling wine (about 700,000 bottles compared with 80 million bottles for Freixenet) and only 30% of this wine is exported. Due to its extensive ageing and the high degree of manual effort applied to make these wines they are expensive – in the Spanish market about 40% more expensive than factory Cavas. Consider the multiplier effect of taxes and markups to get a wine into Ontario and you are approaching Champagne territory, for a Cava.

Small production, small amounts available for export, higher prices than most Cavas command – this sounds risky and is why an importer such as the LCBO has no interest in making any effort to bring such wines into Ontario.

There is some good news: if you want to bring in some Gramona you can place an order with LCBO Specialty Services. It won’t be an easy process but many readers have adopted this approach when wines that aren’t otherwise available cross their radar. Go to https://www.lcbo.com/programs_services/private_ordering/content_priv_ordering.shtml for more information on private ordering.

* In Vino Veritas seems to have a knack for monikers. It calls itself, Probably the most modest wine magazine.

à bientôt…
Copyright© W. John Switzer 2003 – 2014.


Accidental wine

I recently spent a day in the city of Funchal on the island of Madeira. The island of Madeira is the largest in a small archipelago called Madeira which is an autonomous region of Portugal located some 300 miles off the coast of Morocco.

From what I saw and experienced on a short visit to this place it is clearly a place to revisit for a more lengthy stay. The island is visually stunning with lush gardens, steep mountainous terraces everywhere, traditional Portuguese architecture and food, friendly people, an hospitable climate and countless historic and natural sites to visit.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Madeira is an incredible system of walking paths which follow the path of a system of engineered aqueducts (called levadas). These aqueducts cover the island and collect and transport rainwater for agricultural use and power generation. The aqueducts and walkways crisscross the island and cover a distance of over 2000 km on an island that measures 57 km long and 22 km wide at the widest point. Hikers of all levels of skill and experience come to Madeira from all over the world for a unique and challenging way to enjoy a close-up perspective on this beautiful paradise.

Madeira is famous as the birthplace of Cristiano Rinaldo, one of the greatest soccer players of our time. It also famous for its embroidery, its tourism and its annual New Year’s Eve fireworks display – apparently the biggest and most spectacular in the world.

This is the long way of introducing something that has been of historic and economic importance to Madeira – but today much less so – Madeira wine. This is a fortified wine which has been made for centuries but which developed its unique character by accident.

Because of its location Madeira was an important port of call in the 16th to 18th centuries for trading and exploration ships travelling to and from the new world. Supplies would be loaded at Madeira for long trans-Atlantic journeys and these supplies would include wine. To ensure the wine did not spoil it would be fortified with neutral grape spirits which both preserved the wine but also increased the level of alcohol.

The accidental part of this story occurred when one consignment of wine which had been shipped to the Caribbean for sale was returned to Madeira. When the casks were opened the wine was discovered to have taken on a pleasing, complex, oxidized character. The wine had been exposed to intense heat on the out – and back journeys and had oxidized in the process. The wine was rich and sweet and showed flavours of marmalade, dried fruit and roasted walnuts.

This discovery resulted in frequent shipments of wine specifically for the purpose of letting them madeirize on a return journey to from and to Madeira. Over time this practice was replaced by an artificial way to replicate the heat effects of a trans-oceanic voyage. This process, called estufagem, saw the wine placed in large, old casks which would be placed in racks in full exposure to the sun, where they would rest for months if not years, cooking and oxidizing in the process.

In the 18th century Madeira became a widely popular wine, especially in the new world where it is rumoured to have been the celebration wine consumed at the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Shipments to England, Russia, Brazil and North Africa expanded the market for Madeira wine until disease struck – phylloxera and powdery mildew – resulting in a collapse of the wine industry which took until the late 20th century to restore to a modest level of sustainability. Madeira wine became more known as a cooking wine in the meantime, until major replantings of noble grapes enabled dramatic improvements in quality.

Several grape varieties are used to make Madeira in different styles/levels of sweetness. In order, from dry to sweet, the main varieties are Sercial (dry with relatively high acid), Verdelho (a white grape which makes a smoky style wine in a fino style), Bual (sweeter still with rich ripe texture) and Malmsey (the darkest and sweetest at up to 120 g/L of residual sugar). All Madeira wines show fine balance and complexity. Acid levels are high and this has offsets what would otherwise be a cloying texture.

Modern techniques have evolved to complete the estufagem process. The most common is the use of stainless tanks which have heat coils allowing the wine to be cooked at temperatures of up to 55°C for a minimum of 90 days before transfer to large oak barrels for further ageing. Some makers use large casks placed in rooms with steam pipes and others still use the traditional estufagem process ageing the wines in huge oak casks for 5 years, 10 years, 20 years, or more.

The resulting wines are always full of character and can be enjoyed in many ways. They are complex, well-balanced and consistently rich with citrus, nut, smoke and dried fruit aromas and flavours. These wines can last for decades in bottle and are appreciated by collectors for their long-life potential. Once bottled the wines stop evolving but they are stable and unique for their age-worthiness.

Some experts believe that the Madeira wine sector will have difficulty surviving. Why? Consider:

• Today only 450 hectares of DOC vines are cultivated and this land is under constant threat of re-development in an economy that has seen rampant real estate development during the first decade of the 21st century.
• Cultivation of grapes and maintenance of the vines is extremely difficult and expensive on a terrain that is inhospitable to the extreme.
• Consolidation has characterized the industry with one family, the Blandys, acquiring many of the storied names such as Miles and Cossart, all brought under the corprorate umbrella of the Madeira Wine Company. A handful of small producers are still operating (such as the Henriques and Justinos – see more below) but the market for their wines is small and needs rejuvenation if the industry is to stabilize and grow.
• The industry has a history of association with old men, cigars and privilege (think Winston Churchill, a regular visitor to the island of Madeira over his lifetime). The world of wine has moved beyond that tradition and Madeira wine needs to be re-branded as a versatile drink that can be enjoyed as an aperitif, as an accompaniment to many foods or as a digestif – depending on the style of Madeira chosen.

While we were in Funchal we were hosted at the Blandys lodge by the young CEO of the Madeira Wine Company, Christopher Blandy.

Christopher is the latest of some 10 generations of Blandys to head up the firm and he looks to be the man for the times. He is youthful, in his mid-30’s, and he has worked in the wine industry in several countries before joining the firm. He brings a marketing bent to his role, something that will be critical to expanding markets, not just for the Blandy brands but for the industry as whole.

The first wine I purchased when I became old enough to buy at the LCBO was a 20-year old Madeira. I remember vividly the nose and palate of that wine as though I had tasted it only yesterday. This memory was re-kindled at the Blandy tasting and I was reminded of the unique and complex character of these wines and the sheer pleasure they can deliver.

You will see in the May 24 Vintages article above one of my selections this weekend is a Rainwater Madeira. This is a coincidence as I planned to write about Madeira long before I knew this wine would be on offer this weekend. Try it.

You may become a member of the Madeira wine appreciation society: may it grow and prosper.

à bientôt…

Copyright© W. John Switzer 2003 – 2014.

LCBO Vintages release – March 1, 2014

The first of three Vintages releases for the month of March hits the shelves at LCBO stores this weekend.  Wines from Canada, the USA, France and Australia made with the Cabernet Sauvignon grape are featured. The selection is interesting but none of the wines are a value so we have passed on the feature – this is a trend.

Two wines from central Italy get the nod this weekend along with one wine each from South Africa, Oregon and the Beaujolais zone of Burgundy. The wines selected this week are lighter than what one would seek in the blistering cold outside.  Call me an optimist…

South Africa, Stellenbosch – WO Stellenbosch Rustenberg Chardonnay 2012

I think some of the best value Chardonnays are made in South Africa.  This is the good news.  The bad news is many of these wines are over-oaked with the result they are blowsy and fat, with fruit which is hard to find in the midst of all the smoke and wood. Here we have a wine that shows fine balance between the wood and the exceptionally expressive fruit.  It has pear, green apple, lemon on the nose and palate accompanied by a hint of smoke and toasted almond.  The structure is solid and the finish is long and complex.  This is the weightiest wine of my selections this release.

Extra dry, white wine – $19.95 per bottle

France, Burgundy – AOC Côte de Brouilly Jean-Paul Brun Terres Dorées 2012

We had a conventional ferment Gamay in the last release with the Malivoire Gamay.  Now we go to the style most readers will be familiar with: a Gamay fermented using the carbonic maceration method of fermentation.  This approach delivers bright berry fruit, a lightish body, and a wine that is best consumed when young.  This wine has lots of berry, juicy acid, and a bit of savoury spice on the nose and palate and a long finish.  This is a light-bodied wine that will serve beautifully when the weather warms up and we can dine on the patio.

Extra dry, red wine – $17.95 per bottle

USA, Oregon, Willamette Valley – Castle Rock Pinot Noir 2011

Oh, to live in Washington State or New Jersey.  There I could buy a bottle of this wine for a little bit over $11.00… Castle Rock is a big operation which buys fruit from some 40 growers in Washington, Oregon and California and vinifies this fruit in local wineries close to the vineyards.  It has a big following in the popular wine press and has a well-deserved reputation for pleasing wines which are good value. This Pinot Noir is a popular, commercially-made wine which does a very fine job of punching above its weight in character.  It has a rustic light-weight palate with earth, bumble-berry fruit and herbs with soft tannins and plenty of juicy acid. I think this is a new listing for Vintages and I expect this wine will sell quickly.

Extra dry, red wine – $19.95 per bottle

Italy, Umbria – DOC Rosso di Torgiano Lungarotti Rubesco 2009

I haven’t seen this wine for many years: it was a General List standby in days of yore and it’s nice to see this old friend once again. It is a blend dominated by Sangiovese and it has a soft velvet texture accompanied by crisp acid and brilliant fruit.  The nose and palate are complex with red cherry-berry, plum and spice and earthy character on the mid-palate and finish.  The tannins are dusty and the finish is long.  Enjoy with grilled meats.

Extra dry, red wine – $19.95 per bottle

Italy, Tuscany– DOCG Chianti Classico Lornano 2009

Prices for Chianti Classico can wander all over the map; here we have an excellent value for for under$20.00. Why pay more when you get a classic Classico at this price?  This is a well-made wine with all the elements: dusty tannins, ripe berry fruit, juicy, food-friendly acid and a long dry finish.  This is a best buy that seeks al dente pasta in a spicy tomato sauce.

Extra dry, red wine – $17.95 per bottle

à bientôt…

Copyright© W. John Switzer 2003 – 2014.

France – an opportunity lost

This weekend the main feature is France, part of the February month-long Joie de Vin celebration at LCBO stores across the province. There is a selection of some 20 wines chosen from the wine-producing regions of France and all price points are represented.

The Joie de Vin celebration is one of the most low-key events in recent history at the LCBO.

I make this comment when I compare the Joie de Vin program to the huge splash which was the first of two California celebrations conducted at the LCBO last year.

That event started with promotional materials inserted in newspapers prior to the launch, billboards, radio slots, tasting events and media kits for critics and writers and an ongoing onslaught from agents who sent wines to professionals when those wines didn’t reach the tastings. The message in the stores was even more full-frontal in its colourful California lifestyle displays everywhere you looked. Consumers and their advisors were in the loop that something was going on with attractively-priced mid-range wines featured in waves throughout the campaign.

The overarching purpose of this blitz was to open widely the California brand to the big and informed value-buyer segment, a category that has historically always considered California wines to be either too cheap to be of acceptable quality or too expensive to be even considered.

The French event has been a sleeper by comparison.  There have been two newspaper inserts over the first two weeks of February and they have been attractive in their packaging and content. Tick that box.  There have been a few wines offered at modestly-discounted prices – tick that box.  The stores have a handful of cardboard Eiffel Towers in the window and some aisle or row-end displays that give the customer a sense that something is going. Ok, maybe we can tick that box. But, the in-store presence is otherwise subdued and appears like just more eye-noise, and there is a lot of this noise in today’s LCBO store.  As well, there have been no special professional tastings related to this campaign and the number of wines featured at the LCBO is less than half the number that were on promotion when the California event was underway.

Consider the relative positioning of France and California at the LCBO (General List): French wine sales in 2012-2103 were $115 million vs $149 million for the USA (primarily California).  Sales dollar volume for France for the same period decreased by 3.3% while the USA saw sales dollar volume grow by 26.4%. France does somewhat better in Vintages where the super-premium wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne are offered but in 2012-2013 USA Vintages sales were still higher than those for France ($95 million vs. $82 million), despite rising prices in the Bordeaux futures category.

There is clear evidence that France continues to do a poorer job of positioning itself as a producer of value wines.  It is a country best-known for many of the most expensive wines in the world and this brand image is so firmly established it spills over into lesser categories – where the everyday wines reside – and scares off customers who don’t otherwise know about the values available in regions such as the Loire, Alsace and the Rhône. This is a problem, especially at a time when domestic wine consumption in France continues to decline and at a time when the New World continues to aggressively pursue greater market share with wines of ever -improving quality and value.

In the past California suffered under the reputation as a maker of expensive wines as it is the pricy wines which have traditionally garnered the headlines. Stories abound of long waiting lists for iconic wines that never reach the public.

The message delivered in the California campaign last year was clear: California makes very appealing wines that sell for less than $20.00 and these wines run the gamut of styles from cool-climate to hot continental climate and everything in between: California is not a monolith. The consumer got the message as the G.L. sales growth demonstrates.

If this data did not call the French marketing people into action then there is a problem.  The current campaign indicates the message has not been received in France nor by the Canadian staff of its global food and beverage marketing arm, Sopexa. This is too, bad, not just for French wine makers.  It is even more tragic as there are many consumers who would leap across the aisle to France if they only knew more about the wines and regions of France.  These wines represent exceptional value, diverse variety and are food friendly across a wide array of cuisines.

All of this begs the question: why does France not step up?  Is it arrogance: our wines are so good anybody who needs to know about them already does know about them?  Is it ignorance?  Do the French not know how to market?

I doubt it is either of these.  Rather I think it is a simple matter of culture.  The Joie de Vin has the look of a playful French marketing campaign and while it might work over there it is simply too muted to have any effect in Ontario.  It is not a  campaign that crosses generational lines and it is not a campaign that has enough North American sizzle for consumers to take notice.

The LCBO will work with agencies and industry marketing bodies to promote product.  Each year the LCBO publishes a calendar of themes and campaigns and works with its industry partners and their creative and PR people to bring each campaign to market.  The LCBO has a selfish interest: the more customers learn about the wines and the wine regions of the world, the more they will explore. The more buzz in the stores, the more frequently consumers will visit, explore and buy.

The reciprocal benefit is for the partner, be it France, California, Italy, Australia or whomever.  The more the consumer knows about its grapes, regions and wines the more likely he or she will add its aisle to their path in the store. Big campaigns are the opportunity to build brand, re-define brand, expand brand… all of the above.  Successful campaigns need investment and properly executed will pay immediate dividends.  Under-designed, under-funded campaigns are a waste of money.

Shame on France.  I hope the Joie de Vin campaign is a success by whatever measure the marketing folks have embraced.  Regardless, it will not move the needle very far.

à bientôt…

Copyright© W. John Switzer 2003 – 2014.