Wine touring – as a tourist

I recently spent several days in Champagne country in France.  There is nothing too notable about this fact other than one small detail: I visited the region as a tourist, not as a wine trade professional.

This was a major concession to my wife who has been very patient over the years when I disappear into a winery for a few minutes and re-appear two hours later.  My lovely wife has developed a coping mechanism to keep her sanity and to hold our marriage intact while I indulge my winery visit routines.  She brings a Donna Leon mystery when we travel and has now completed the full series of Commissario Brunetti Venetian crime novels. She needs to find a new writer to follow or I need to flex my approach to wine country visits.  This trip we did the flex thing.

What does visiting a wine region as a tourist entail?

Well, it involves making no advance appointments to visit wineries so one can be assured of meeting the owner, the winemaker and any other people who are part of the local winery story.  It means you sleep in and have a relaxing breakfast before hitting the road – as opposed to rushing out shortly after sunrise to get to your first appointment.

We will never forget the morning trip in the Yarra Valley fog two years ago.  We couldn’t find a satellite for the GPS, we got lost and fortunately recovered our path by accident.  This was all happening on the way for a 9:00 am rendezvous with James Halliday, the prolific Australian wine writer and wine maker.  We arrived at the crack of nine and James’ first comment was “you are punctual”, said in a way that made it clear that punctuality was important…Phew!

Tourist travel also means you get back to the hotel while the sun is still up.  Perhaps most importantly it means you don’t try to return home to Canada with two cases of wine, wine that was bought along the way, often as a token of gratitude to the hosts. Bringing wine home is an excellent way to throw money down the drain – not due to duty and excise taxes but due to breakage – inevitable when you fly Air Canada. Tourists drink the wine they buy in situ, in the restaurant or their room, that evening.

So what did we do in Champagne?  We visited the famous Notre-Dame cathedral in Reims.  This is the place where the kings of France were crowned and a place that figured prominently in the early history of the region. The cathedral was severely damaged during artillery bombardment in the First World War but has been rebuilt and is a stunning piece of architecture – both in scale and detail.

Another site we visited was the Avenue de Champagne in Epernay.  This elegant street lives true to its name.  It is the address for several of the major negociant houses and is an elegant boulevard of stately and historic buildings, stylish apartments and the home of several industry bodies. It is wonderful avenue to stroll in the spring sunshine after a bistro lunch.

We also visited the small village of Hautvillers, a five minute drive out of Epernay.  This is the home of the Abbey of Hautvillers, the place where the famous monk, Dom Perignon, lived and toiled.  Dom Perignon is considered in folklore to be the father of Champagne, a story kept alive to this day by the folks at Moët & Chandon, the present-day owners of the Dom Perignon brand.

We visited several Champagne houses in Reims and Epernay.  Nobody does tourism better than the marketing behemoths that are Moët & Chandon, Taittinger, Pol Roger, Mumm and their competitors. Each house conducts tours throughout the day, in your choice of language (you do need to book ahead for these tours as the tour groups are small). These tours are explorations of the history and traditions of the house always conducted in the limestone vaults deep under the ground.

The tour guides follow a formal script that describes the processes of winemaking using the méthode traditionelle. There is ample opportunity for questions along the way.  I did find there was a resistance to technical questions that might unearth some secrets but that is a quibble that shouldn’t have arisen if I had truly tried to stay on the tourist track. Slap!

Each tour ends with a tasting and depending on your ticket you may get one glass or you may get several glasses of different wines.  We shared tickets so we could do a comparison of different wines and so I didn’t consume too much (I was the designated driver). My wife was very pleased with this arrangement.

The caves at each house are spectacular and the tours make the wines and their heritage live.  My wife learned a great deal on these tours (and I took lots of photographs).

I teach sparkling wines in the WSET programs and the trip to Champagne region had one simple goal: I wanted to better understand the complex geography of the region.  Champagne is a region of five zones: Montagne de Reims, Vallée de La Marne, Côtes des Blancs, Côtes de Bar and Côte Sézanne.  I have always has some difficulty understanding what makes each of these zones distinct and the best way I learn is to see and experience, first hand.  Hence the visit.

Val de La Marne – Hautvillers to the right centre

We drove through the countryside of Champagne, stopped often, walked the vineyards, saw the different pruning and trellising methods and spoke with vineyard workers to understand what they were doing.  Champagne is defined by its geography: the climate, the aspect of the slopes, the use of rolling hillsides rather than flat plains, the soils and their effect on viticulture and wine style and so on. Goal accomplished with many photos to illustrate the points to my students.

If you want to have a great time in France, there is not a better place to visit than the northern reaches of France that are Champagne and Alsace-Lorraine.  Reims is a 45 minute ride on the TGV from the Gare de L’Est in Paris. But it is a continent away in culture, tradition and pace. The food was exceptional everywhere we went and travelers can dine well on a modest budget in both Reims and Epernay.

We stayed in a fine hotel in Reims but next time we will find a place to stay in Epernay.  Reims is a big city which has a charming centre, all rebuilt since the end of the first and second wars, but the rest of the city is big, uninteresting and sketchy.  On the other hand Epernay is a provincial city of some 25,000 residents and has a nicer ambience than its neighbour half an hour up the road. In either case there are plenty of good hotels available.  Use Trip Advisor to get the skinny on places to stay.

Next time also I will do the professional thing and set up advance appointments with some small producers, the recoltants-manipulants of the region.  It was amazing to see the number of grower/makers in the small villages throughout the region.  These are the makers whose wines reflect place and vintage in ways the negociant wines do not.  The negociant wines are made to achieve a consistent house style year-in, year-out.  The grower wines reflect the style their terroir allows and they show vintage variation, both of which make these wines interesting if you are an explorer.

All-in-all this was a trip with a twist and it was a welcome change from our traditional frenetic working tours.  Highly recommended and four thumbs up!

à bientôt…

Copyright© W. John Switzer 2003 – 2012.



Matches made in the glass

I have been doing a great deal of teaching this winter and there is one area where students have shown special interest: the domaine of food and wine matching.

One of the reasons for this interest is obvious:  my students need to understand the principles, and be able to apply those principles, if they are to pass their exams.  The other reason is, many of these students are front-line staff in upscale restaurants and they need to be able to advise their clients on the wines that will best match their entrée selections – happy customers make happy servers…

Most students understand the classic matches:  Sauternes with stilton cheese, Bordeaux red with prime rib, smoked salmon and Champagne, etc., but they don’t know the rationale for these matches.  Step outside the bounds of the classics and they are generally stumped.

The students I work with are not unique.  Most wine lovers have a small repertoire of food and wine matches they rely on – and the converse: food and wine mis-matches they avoid – but they often don’t have enough experience to go beyond the boundaries of their narrow range of proven matches.

As I teach this material I have found it best to assemble some simple rules to help guide me – and my students – through the amazing realm of matching possibilities.  The goal is to expand our horizons by experimenting and hopefully, in the process, conclude that food and wine, properly matched, can enhance the enjoyment of both.

First, some simple rules:

  • Match the body and/or richness of the food with the body of the wine (such as beef stew with a full-bodied, tannic Aussie Shiraz)
  • Combine food with wines that share the same flavour intensity (try spicy Mexican food with Argentinean Malbec, or spicy Asian food with a pungent Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc)
  • Acidic foods should be served with acidic wines (pasta in tomato sauce matched with a young Chianti Classico)
  • Match sweet foods with sweet wines (such as crème brulée with a chilled glass of Icewine or a Vin Doux Naturel made with Muscat)
  • Chewy meats should be matched with high-tannin wines to allow the protein to soften the tannins (beef brisket with Cabernet Sauvignon)
  • Salty foods (olives, certain cheeses, oysters, salted nuts) should be matched with sweet or acidic wines to enhance the food flavours (for instance, stilton cheese and Port, oysters and Muscadet)
  • Pair oily/fatty foods with acidic wines (e.g.  Wiener Schnitzel with Riesling, grilled salmon steak with Grüner Veltliner)

These are some simple rules and they work!

There is a theme to the rules: match weight of food with weight of wine, match intensity of food flavour with wines of similar flavour intensity. Once you have achieved this level of matching refine further to balance texture (e.g. chewy or oily), and other elements such as acidity and sweetness.

Acidity in wines triggers saliva flow and this effect creates the juiciness I describe in many wines. One of the most notable effects food can have on wine is the match one gets when a high-acid wine such as a dry Riesling is properly paired with juicy roast chicken (where acid and fat trump a possible flavour intensity mis-match) or with grilled cold-water salmon (where the acid nicely reduces the fatty character of the fish). Proper matches such as these open doors to wine lovers and even inexperienced tasters begin to appreciate wines that they might otherwise consider too acidic.

if you don’t believe me, try this simple experiment:  open a bottle of extra-dry Riesling that is chilled but not too cold.  Have your entree standing by (for example a filet of grilled trout with some lightly-boiled baby potatoes au beurre).  Sniff, swirl, slosh and swallow a sip of the wine on its own.  Note the juicy freshness of the citrus aromas and flavours.  Note also the intensely-high acidity in the glass and the juices released by your saliva glands.  Clearly this is not a patio sipper wine.  Now tuck into your filet of trout with another sip of the wine.  Now note how much softer the wine is – and how much the flavours and texture of the fish are enhanced by the combination of the crisp and assertive wine and the juices in your mouth.  Sheer bliss!

Here’s another way of looking at matching.  This table provides a picture of the possibilities:

In my scheme green boxes represent the perfect match, an orange box means you should proceed with caution and avoid at all costs where you see a red box.  Note the versatility of sparkling wine (here I refer to a quality traditional method sparkler such as Champagne, Cava, a Crémant from France, or New World delights like the Gloria Ferrer in the last Vintages Release.

I hope this little primer helps you work through the complexities of matching.  More importantly I hope it gives you some cues for your own experimentation.


à bientôt…

Copyright© W. John Switzer 2003 – 2011.

LCBO Vintages Release – January 22, 2011

This Saturday’s Vintages release features wines from Chile and SouthWest France.

Unfortunately the feature wines selected for this release are too simple for my palate and none made the grade on my list for value and quality.  This is too bad as both regions are showing improvements in quality and are known for modestly-priced accessible wines.  I think the Vintages team was seeking to keep its New Year 2011 offerings at accessible prices (i.e. below $15.00 per bottle) and in the process has delivered a list of insipid, below-average wines: wines that don’t do the Vintages brand justice, in my mind.

South West France – the regions of Cahors, Madiran and the lesser-known regions of Gaillac and Fronton – is showing enormous development in recent years.  Historically the wines from these parts of France were hairy and rustic and required extended bottle-aging to soften and eventually appeal to tender palates.  Cahors is the traditional home of Malbec, the grape now known for its round and juicy Argentinean character. Wines from Madiran are made with the Tannat grape – the grape best-known for its high levels of heart-healthy anthocyanins.  These are grapes that all wine lovers should explore from different regions to see the effect of terroir on their presentation.

There are some inexpensive wines from the South West of France in the release that you may wish to try.  Ask your local product consultant for some suggestions that will fit your palate.

While this release is one of the weakest in a while there are still a handful of good values, headlined by some very classy white wines.

Germany, Mosel – QmP Haus Klosterberg Markus Molitor Riesling Spätlese 2008

Stunning value for a well-made Mosel Riesling, this wine shows intense aromas and flavours with a very long finish.  Honey, spice, stone fruits and orange citrus are accompanied by stony minerals on the palate.  There is a hint of botrytis on the nose and palate adding to the overall complexity of this wine.  The body is light to medium and I suggest you serve this wine with a lightly breaded veal cutlet or a halibut steak.

Medium-dry, white wine – $22.95 per bottle

France, Loire – AOC Pouilly-Fumé Cédrick Bardin 2009

I love the wines of the Loire almost as much as I love the oohs of pleasant surprise when I present one of these wines to a group of skeptics. Made with 100% Sauvignon Blanc grapes there is plenty of grapefruit citrus and mineral character reflecting the cool climate and limestone substrate of the upper Loire valley. The acid is bright and juicy and the finish is long.  This is a perfect wine match for spicy Thai food.

Extra-dry, white wine – $21.95 per bottle

France, Champagne  – AOC Champagne Vandières Delouvin Nowack Carte d’Or Brut NV

Valentine’s Day is on the near horizon and this calls for a celebration sparkler.  Here’s the perfect match for the need at a very fine price. The colour is a deep yellow-gold indicating extended time in bottle.  The nose is resplendent with biscuit, lemon and toast.  The palate shows very good weight and has excellent structure and complexity.  Toast, biscuit, bright and juicy citrus flavours are all present.  The mousse is assertive and creamy. Be forewarned: the LCBO brought in only a small number of cases and this wine will move quickly…great value!

Extra dry, sparkling wine- $39.95 per bottle

Portugal, Dã0 – DOC Dão Casa de Santar Red 2007

I expected 2010 to be a break out year for Portugal at the LCBO and for some reason the Vintages buyers didn’t deliver as I expected.  2011 seems to be off to a good start on the Portuguese front so perhaps I was just a few months ahead of myself.  This wine is an excellent value and has bright red fruit, spice, some hints of chocolate, juicy acid and fine tannins.  It is very fresh and quite refined for the price.  This wine will be a good match with cold chicken or steak salad this summer.

Dry, red wine – $14.95 per bottle

Italy, Tuscany – DOCG Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Nottola 2006

This wine is made by one of the better producers in the town of Montepulciano.  It is a blend, where often Vino Nobile is made with 100% Sangiovese grapes (or Prugnolo Gentile as the grape is known in the area). This wine is rustic with an earthy nose laden with rich aromas of red cherry and toasted oak. The palate is medium to full-bodied with complex cherry, herb spices and smoke.  The acid is zesty and the tannins are grainy and dusty.  The finish is long. This is a fine wine from a great value denominazione.  Match with home-made lasagne.

Extra dry, red wine – $18.95 per bottle

The runners’- up:

Ontario, Niagara – VQA Beamsville Bench Rosewood Estates Merlot 2008

Another example of the very good value Rosewood Estates is becoming known for, this wine is ready to drink now.  Black fruit, spice, modest tannins and a strong finish. (Extra dry, red wine $20.00 per bottle)

Italy, Veneto – DOC Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Nino Franco Brut

If the Delouvin Nowack Champagne is too rich for your budget this will be an excellent substitute or a great wine to keep in your working supply for sparkling occasions.  From an excellent maker – Extra dry, sparkling wine $18.95 per bottle.

France, Languedoc – AOC Coteaux du Languedoc La Clape Château Camplazens La Garrigue 2007

This wine is a blend of Syrah and Grenache and is approachable now.  It has very fine complexity on the nose and palate and is a great wine for winter comfort food dinners (Dry, red wine $16.95 per bottle).

The next Vintages Release will feature 2007 reds from Tuscany and prize winners from Washington State.  It will hit the shelves on February 5, 2011.

à bientôt…

Copyright© W. John Switzer 2003 – 2011.