Vertical Party – Nota Bene 05-12

DSC_7450These are the bottles from my Nota Bene vertical tasting this past weekend. I’m happy to report that there were no corked bottles and that everything was showing brilliantly. As my regular readers will know, I hate writing (and reading) wine reviews but I was asked a few times on twitter if there were any of these wines that stood out. There were, but Twitter is a difficult place to explain things that require more than a half-baked thought. With only one exception, I was also amazed at how contiguous the whole collection was and thought that this in itself merited a summary here.

If you’ve never heard of a vertical tasting, it is tasting the same wine from many different vintages on one occasion. I would suggest that it requires a minimum of at least 3 vintages to get a fair idea of the wines’ characteristics. The point is not just to have a ton of wine at a party (a nice side-effect) but rather to have lots of wine with slight variations due to the different vintages. All wines will show slight differences although I believe that larger, commercially manufactured wines are by nature designed to minimize these differences. It is an illuminating experience.

As I had worked regularly with the 4 most recent vintages of this wine for 7 months this past year, I became very familiar with its moods. I had tried every vintage here before although never all in one sitting. I’d been building and saving this collection since 2006 with the intention of having it for a special event or occasion and it seemed to me that the time was right.

Nota Bene is always made with only 3 grape varieties – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. With three exceptions since 1999, they have always been in that order. 1999 and 2012 were Merlot-dominant and 2000 was Cab Sauv, Cab Franc, and then Merlot. The only outlier in this particular set was the Merlot-dominant 2012.

For me, the stand outs were the ’07 and the ’10. Here are my thoughts on all of the vintages in the order that I tasted them from oldest to youngest.

2005 – One word – yum. Still got some years left in it if you dare. I can’t because that was my last bottle but I would hold onto at least one for another year or two. It had softened beautifully without getting flabby. It was noticeably more delicate than the others and was covered by some of the more robust food items. Even still, the flavours were beautiful and complex which made this wine a joy to sip.

2006 – The one sore thumb for me was the ’06. It had far more oxidized, prune aromas than any of the other vintages. It wasn’t just that this particular bottle was off because of a failing cork, this is the consistent direction that the wine has been progressing since 2013. This is the vintage that I had the most bottles – a case – that was purchased in the infamous 47-minute online sell-out in 2008. It was brilliant in its youth, a little closed from 3-5 years old, and then it blossomed after that. But it kept blossoming and kind of went over the edge, in a way. The last 3 bottles that I’d opened over the past year indicated that it was headed for an early demise which made me concerned for the condition of the ’05 (needlessly, as it turned out). Let me clear though – it’s not that I didn’t like it, I did. Erin from Vines and Designs tweeted this as one of her 3 preferred vintages that evening. I enjoyed it as well but it stood out because of this very different flavour profile.

20150118-093305.jpg2007 – At just over 7 years of age now, the ’07 was right in that prime target area for where I think NB is most expressive. I think NB shines in the range from 6-9 years of age but that is entirely subjective on my part. It’s what I enjoy most out of it and nothing else. The aromas and flavours were complex and tannins and acidity were present but smooth and rounded. It really was the stand-out for me in this set.

2008 – This wine was the next car in the NB train that is going to get there but isn’t due to pull into the station yet. It’s showing well and is consistent with NB but hasn’t arrived yet. After 24 more hours in a decanter, it was showing beautifully.

2009 – See 2008 above. In the vertical tastings that I lead at Black Hills last year, this was usually the wine favoured by customers. But in my opinion is still only starting on its trip. Like the ’08, it showed better after 24 hours.

2010 – The ’10 was like a more youthful ’07. I thought it had the same complexity and range but was just a little more aggressive. With 57% Cabernet Sauvignon, this was the roughest wine of the 4 that we offered in the Black Hills Wine Experience Centre last summer. No other vintage of NB has ever had that much Cab Sauv. Last summer it was hidden, rough, and was rarely the vintage favoured by customers. I enjoyed its potential though and was really looking forward to trying it in this vertical. It didn’t disappoint at all. This was the only wine that I went back for seconds.

2011 – More closed than a coffee shop in Vancouver at 9pm.

The spread.

The spread.

2012 – Still has the freshness and vigour of a youthful wine but will probably loose that over the next year if it stays consistent with the previous 8 vintages of NB that I’ve experienced. This is only the second Merlot-dominated vintage so it could clear its own path away from the norm. Either way, it will be a fascinating vintage to follow. There is still a little of it left which I plan on trying tonight or tomorrow.

For the wine-nerd record, the bottles were all opened 1-2 hours before being served. The vintages ’05-’08 were decanted, ’09 had a Nuance wine finer, and ’10 and up were not decanted at all.

Overall, it was a thoroughly enjoyable flight in its proper setting – a dinner party featuring many foods that pair well with a meritage. We had lamb skewers, beef stew, pork ribs, and charcuterie along with an overwhelming set of accompanying tasty dishes. I’ve done vertical tastings before many times before and the clinical nature of the settings tends to focus on aspects of the wine that frankly I find irrelevant. A big part of what I enjoyed about presenting wines at Black Hills last year was that it was a more natural terroir for enjoying wine, a topic that I’ve covered previously on this blog. I’ve never been to a party where everyone sits down with 8 different pizza slices in front them, takes notes, and then compares their thoughts on each one after tasting them in silence. Honestly, I’m not sure I’d want to go to one.

If you haven’t done a vertical tasting at a party, I highly recommend it. Most everyone at my party were involved in the wine industry in some way but it is something that can still be enjoyed by anyone at all. Find a wine you like, save a few years’ worth of it (I suggest a minimum of 3 vintages), find some good food to pair, and away you go. It’s really not that more complicated than that and nor should it be. The point isn’t to show off your wines to your friends, it’s to share it and enjoy it all together.

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

Correct Wine Pronunciations

As if my Grand Cru article earlier this month didn’t get me enough controversy, I thought I’d dig into this argument as well. I’ve always joked that wine bloggers know everything about wine except how to pronounce it. By that I mean that we read, search for, and type our technical terms or place names in articles but rarely have to actually speak those same terms. I was deservedly chastised by a colleague of mine last summer for pronouncing the Champenois region “Reims” incorrectly (allegedly), sounding it as “Reems”. Apparently this is a common Anglophone way of mispronouncing it, but is incorrect even though an archived CBC radio broadcast announcing VE day pronounced it exactly as I (allegedly) had. Her pronunciation “Roms” seemed odd to me so I consulted the Grand All-Knowing Knower of Everything (aka Google) which lead me to yet another pronunciation which, to English-speakers, makes “Reims” rhyme with “France”. For what it’s worth, another website also supports this same version. I learned that apparently “Reims” rhymes with “France”.

So now I know.

Pronunciation of words in other languages is, I think, part of the reason that wine is considered inaccessible to some people. The cynic in me believes that Chardonnay and Merlot were as popular as they were (or still are) simply because they are easy to pronounce. Growing up as I did in a French-speaking province, words that aren’t in my native tongue (which is English) are not problematic for me nor do they cause me any grief when trying to order a wine in a restaurant. I know from watching people at the tasting that I am part of the minority (ironic really, since that’s what I was in when I lived in Quebec) and that lots of people find these words difficult.

French words in particular are everywhere in wine, mostly because the names of grapes are usually of French origin – common ones like Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Sauvignon Blanc. There are more obscure ones like Marichel Foch, Madeline Angevine, and Auxerrois that don’t help either. The Germanic varieties (Gewürztraminer, Ehrenfelser, and Siegerrebe) are tougher at first but easier once you get used to them. There are a lot of those varieties in the Okanagan and it used to be hard to do a wine tour here without seeing at least one, although that is changing.

One of the German varieties in the Okanagan that still poses problems though gets its own heading.

The Special Case of Riesling

One grape variety that I find the most irritating to hear pronounced incorrectly is “Riesling”. So please let me be as subtle as I can folks. It is pronounced

Rees-ling.

Not Righ-sling, it’s Rees-ling. The “ie” vowel combination in German in the middle of a word is always pronounced “ee.” Germans are not known for making up multiple rules or adhering to them willy-nilly the way we do in English. There is only one way to pronounce this grape variety. End of story.

If its confusing to you (the way it was for me) which sounds belong to “ie” and “ei”, I can offer you a good way to remember. Think of Albert Einstein. The “Ei” in Einstein is pronounced “Ine-stine”. That means that the “ie” in Riesling is pronounced “ee.” Otherwise he would have been Albert “EenSteen”. See? Simple.

You’re welcome.

There is also the issue of the “s” which can be softened to a “z” in English but that is also not Germanic. Somehow this doesn’t bother me as much so I’ll let it go. This time. Don’t make me write another article about it though…

Get on with it

“Meritage” (rhymes with “heritage” is another confusing word that seems to stump people now and then. My first winery job was at Blasted Church where I worked in the cellar for a vintage. The wine shop people told me that they would get people at least once  week that would ask for the “Hatfield’s Fusé”. They would pronounce the English word “fuse” as “few-zay”! Why? Who knows.

Maybe it’s a defence against appearing to be dumb that people get irritated with having their pronunciation corrected. Maybe it reminds them of their high school French classes too much? Whatever the reason, I believe that wine is complicated enough with all these interesting words and the best way to learn about it all is through the oral tradition of the wine shop. So take the time to listen as well as taste and smell on your next wine tour.

Cheers from wine country!

~ Luke

What do you mean “blended”?

Another question that has been inspired by the many wine tourist friends that I’ve met over the years is about blended wines. I worked at a winery that offered a beautifully constructed premium blended wine that a customer vocally poo-pooed before even tasting it.

“None for me! I don’t like blended wines at all. I much prefer the single varietals,” said the customer.

“What wines do you normally like to drink?” I asked.

“Oh, I love Bordeaux, Rhones, and Chiantis mostly,” was the reply.

*facepalm*

I wish I was making this up but alas, I am not. There was nothing I could do but “Uh-huh” and nod approvingly. A certain amount of tact is involved in working in a wine shop and I was not going to bother to explain that all of the wines they told me were actually blended wines. Bordeaux wines can be made with 9 grape varieties (6 red, 3 white), Rhone wines with a few (4 in the north, upwards of 27 in the south), and Chianti’s (based on Sangiovese but with a bunch more). Suffice it to say that blended wines may be a bit confusing even to some experienced wine lovers.

What is a “blended” wine?

IMG_0811The Oxford Companion to Wine defines a blend as:

Any product of blending but specifically a wine deliberately made from more than one grape variety rather than a single varietal (which may contain only a small proportion of other varieties).”

Blended wines are made with more than one different grape variety. Different grape varieties have different flavours and textures so blending the varieties together in different ways can enhance a wine beyond what the single varieties could have accomplished on their own. In short, the finished wine should be better than the individual wines were on their own. If that wasn’t the case, they should never have been blended. Wines are generally blended with others of the same colour although that isn’t always the case. Shiraz (a red grape) sometimes has a little bit of Viognier (a white) blended in during fermentation which, bizarrely enough, makes the wine darker. It also makes it more aromatic which is the reason Viognier is used in the first place.

In addition to this, I also extend the idea of blended wines to include wines that have been made using more than one vineyard source, although this might be a little confusing because it’s very hard to tell by taste. In my mind a Merlot from [yellow tail] may be made with only one grape variety (Merlot in this case) but because the Merlot comes from perhaps hundreds of vineyard sources, it dilutes any trace of terroir (or any possibility of unique wine flavours) from the finished product. Of course, that’s exactly the point – to create a non-invasive, innocuous, and widely appealing wine with no sharp edges. Because it’s a deliberate, human-initiated activity, I consider it to be a blended wine as well. A lot of BC wines are made this way but on a much smaller scale than the [yellow tail] example above. Unless it is stated as a single vineyard, most wines will very likely come from 2 to 4 different vineyards.

Blended wine is cheap wine

Well, not necessarily. There are still wineries in BC that produce a low-cost base-line blend using the tailings of batches of wines that were used elsewhere or that didn’t measure up in quality.  These wines will be the least expensive bottle in their portfolio and honestly, there is nothing wrong with that in my opinion. The alternative is that it is sold off at a reduced price to another winery where it will be blended away into something else or worse, that it is simply wasted and poured down the drain.

Sometimes these wines can be an accessible and inexpensive option to start learning about wine. For me, Gray Monk’s Latitude 50 was always on my radar as an early wine lover. Road 13’s Honest John’s series and The Cellarhand from Black Hills are other modern takes on this same style.

IMG_0810Many blended wines in BC are climbing higher up the portfolio’s quality ladder. My theory is that wine makers are getting more confident with their skills and are starting to put more thought into making a better wine and not just accepting what nature throws their way. Perhaps the Pinot Gris was a little flabby last year? Maybe adding a little Pinot Blanc will brighten it up? Adding a little Chard might round it out a little. There’s all kinds of qualities in wine that can be tinkered with simply by combining wines from different grape varieties. Wine makers in BC are getting better and more confident at crafting their blends. Winery sales and marketing staff have also gotten behind the blended wines as well, which is critical if a style is going to be successful in the marketplace.

For me personally, I love seeing what a winery can do and the blended wines are a great indicator of their potential.

Blended wine is not as fruity

This came from a customer’s comment sometime last year and has stuck with me ever since. I wouldn’t say that blended wines aren’t as “fruity” as single varieties but that perhaps they are simply not as predictable. It’s hard to tell what to expect from a wine by looking at the name on the label. Seeing “Pinot Noir” on the label tells you a lot. For BC wine in means that it’s going to be a light to medium red wine without a lot of tannins and some bright cherry flavours. Seeing “Felicidade”, “2Bench”,  or “Autumn Gold” on the label means nothing unless you’ve previously tried the wine.

Being less predictable also makes the wines a little more challenging. Single variety wines are easy to figure out if you’ve tasted enough of them and know that you like a particular one. It’s an accessible way to get into wine and learn about it. I remember being faced with a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon and a bottle of Cru Bourgeois Haut-Medoc and choosing the Cabernet Sauvignon because I’d had a few of them before, liked them all, and bought the Cabernet Sauvignon because I thought that I would like it better than whatever the other one was. Of course, the other one was also made of Cabernet Sauvignon (mostly) but because that wasn’t on the label, it didn’t register with me. My loss.

Blended wine is in fashion

IMG_0809Well, it is right now. Or maybe it was? Fashion changes quickly in everything although its difficult to predict and, in the world of wine, is extremely slow to adapt. There’s a big time lag between starting a wine and getting it to market. Wine tastes also change much more slowly than tastes in music, shoes, or handbags. (Uh, so I’ve heard. I’ve read about it somewhere…) Pinot Gris was the hot variety in BC when I first moved to the Okanagan 7 years ago. Blended wines are moving up in the BC wine world and leading the charge for high quality is the blend known as “Meritage”.

Meritage (pronounced “meri-tij” not “meri-tawj” – it rhymes with “heritage”) is a way of indicating that the wine was made using the same grape varieties allowed in Bordeaux. (Technically for a winery to use the word “meritage”, they must belong to the Meritage Alliance, an American organization of which wineries can become a member and therefore be able to legally use the name “Meritage”. However in practice, it has become a generic term to denote a style of wine that is like a Bordeaux.) The earliest prestige or trophy bottles in BC wine’s history were all meritages; Oculus (first vintage ’95), Pinnacle (’97), Nota Bene (’99), and Osoyoos Larose (’01). It was as if BC wine had to prove to the world that we could make a serious meritage. Our current generation of the industry came about at the height of “Parkerization”, when rich, extracted styles of wines were the ones that gained the most attention and were considered to be the most prestigious. Thankfully that era has past but the desire to craft a high quality, complex blend will hopefully never go out of style.

If you blend it…

So the moral of the story is this: Be not afraid of wines not named Cabernet. Single varieties are good, for sure, but there’s a whole world of creativity out there for you to try. Instead of Merlot, Chardonnay, and Pinot Gris or Pinot Noir, look for Character, Corner Stone, Fossil Fuels, and Freud’s Ego. A lot of the blends will also have the varieties listed on the back label just in case you wanted to start with a wine that has varieties that you know you like.

There’s lots of great blended wine out there to discover. Challenge your taste buds and enjoy the wine adventure. Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

Podcast 122 – Clos du Soleil Double Vertical

Rhys Pender, MW, sometimes takes the operatic approach to wine tasting.

Proud owner of Clos du Soleil Spencer Massie

If you have wines from Clos du Soleil in your cellar, consider yourself lucky. And smart. Because you probably recognize an age-worthy wine when you taste it and have recognized it in the wines produced by the Similkameen Valley winery Clos du Soleil.The exclusive tasting that was hosted at the end of this year’s fall wine festival showcased just how age-worthy these wines are. Tasting through 5 vintages each of the Capella White and Signature Red guided by Rhys Pender, Master of Wine, was a spectacular and unique experience on its own but was made more thrilling because it all took place outside the wine shop, just steps away from the vines themselves.Tasting notes for each of the wines tasted that day will be available on Clos du Soleil’s website to help all of their customers decide when they would like to open their cellared bottles. This podcast contains more of the conversation, cogitations, and ephemera that seem volatilize like aromas when glasses get swirled in truly special occasions like this.

(This is what I call an ‘organic’ podcast – meaning that it was recorded outside and has lots of interesting soundscape nuances (glasses being poured, the occasional helicopter, shots from the nearby rifle range, etc…) that can sometimes find their way into the microphone. Rather than being distracting, I hope these sounds elevate the podcast to a more immersive experience.)

The lucky gang of tasters.