British Columbia is a Canadian province that spans more than 300,000 square miles across the west of the country. British Columbia is a region of varied geography, featuring stately mountains, dense temperate rainforests, populous cities (the illustrious Vancouver is located in the province), and more than six thousand islands that hug its 17,000 mile-long coastline.
The wines produced in British Columbia are as varied as its geography; the province’s motto, Splendor sine occasu, “Splendor without diminishment” (“Splendour” for all you Canadians), could serve to describe the region’s oenological landscape. There are five designated viticultural areas in British Columbia: the Okanagan Valley, the Similkameen Valley, the Fraser Valley, the Vancouver Islands, and the Gulf Islands. More than 60 grape varieties are grown across the region. White wine varietals include Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Blanc, Riesling, and Viognier. Top red wine varietals include Merlot, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot.
A very special treat from British Columbia is ice wine. Ice wine is, well, almost exactly how it sounds: it is a style of wine made from frozen grapes. Traditionally, grapes are left to freeze while still on the vine – this freezes water in the grapes, but not the sugars. The grapes are then harvested and pressed, which makes for an extremely sweet wine, with concentrated and complex flavors and aromas. Canada is now the largest producer of ice wine in the world! In British Columbia, the grapes are harvested on cold winter nights, in the snow, in a country famous for its coldly breathtaking winters. The top grapes used for the region’s ice wine are Ehrenfelser, Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Gewurztraminer.
Mendoza lies in the central-western region of Argentina, flanked by vast stretches of flat, dry land to the east, and by the stately, ominous Andes to the west. It is the country’s most dominant oenological province: over an expanse of 356,000 acres, Mendoza produces nearly eighty percent of Argentina’s wine.
Malbec is by far the most important grape in Mendoza, and thus in Argentina. Originally from the south of France, the Malbec grape found its way over to South America on the backs of European immigrants, who found the variety took well to the dry earth and hot sun of Mendoza.* The Malbec grapes in Mendoza are small berries in tight bunches, much different from the variety found in Bordeaux and southwestern France; their taste, too, is fruitier and more velvety. Much of the wine’s characteristics have not only to do with latitude, but with altitude: vineyards are anywhere from 2,300 to 4,600 feet above sea level. The sun in Mendoza is intense; high altitudes mean that the temperature drops low enough to ensure the grapes still develop complex flavors and deep color. Many bottles boast of altitude on their labels, as Argentine wine makers are seemingly as proud of their high altitude vineyards as Burgundian and Napa Valley wine makers are of select hillsides.
Malbec, though deliciously dominant, is not the only grape variety grown in Mendoza. Other red wines produced in Mendoza include Cabernet Sauvignon, Bonarda, Syrah, Tempranillo, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Tannat, and Barbera. White wines include Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Semillon, Chenin Blanc, and Ugni Blanc.
Argentina as a whole, and Mendoza in particular, is continually working to improve the caliber of its wines. For most of Argentina’s wine producing history, wines were made in high quantities, with less effort directed towards quality. (In the world of wine, there is a general, inverse relationship between the two.) Much of the country’s production was meant as inexpensive, mass-produced table wine. One of my favorite stories comes from a winemaker in Maipú, a region in central Mendoza, who told me of shipping wine in the 19th century: wine was shipped en masse to the capitol city of Buenos Aires, and bottled on arrival. The train conductors would help themselves to glasses as they traveled cross-country, and replace the wine they drank with water, so that the barrels would be at their proper weight at destination. By the time the train reached the capitol a week later, the wine was severely diluted – though frankly, it’s surprising that the trains arrived safely at all.
However, since the mid 1990s, Argentina has been making a concerted effort to improve its wines for domestic consumption, and especially for exports. The fact that Malbec is so popular in the United States, and still relatively inexpensive, is testament to the country’s endeavors. If you are fan of Argentine Malbec, I suggest you try a few of its other reds. There is some great Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah produced in Mendoza, but my personal favorite, next to Malbec, is Bonarda.
Check out James Molesworth’s review of the recent vintages of Malbec at the Wine Spectator.
*For those of you bitten by the Malbec bug, I suggest trying the French varietal from Cahors, called Auxerrois, if only to understand just how different a grape may be from one side of the world to the next. I remember a wine tasting where I had my first sip of the French stuff: the man representing the producer, standing alone and looking bored, did not look very hopeful when I walked up with my empty glass. “We’re from Prayssac, in Cahors,” he said, “Do you know where that is?” I nodded, though he still seemed doubtful, shrugging while he poured me a few ounces. I remember the wine being inky, intense, and reminiscent of gravel – but this was all before I learned the virtues of spitting at wine tastings, so my memory may be a bit skewed.
Alsace is located in northeastern France, on the border with Germany. In fact, Alsace has gone through several changes of political hand in the last four hundred years, which accounts for the bizarre, yet delicious, blending of French and German styles in food, language, architecture, and wine. The latter, our focus today, is dominated by full-bodied white wines, in tall slender bottles. There are in fact more than nine grape varieties grown in Alsace, but the region’s most noble wines are made by the following four: Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, and Muscat.
Though Alsatian blends do exist (they are called “Edelzwicker”; note the Germanic touch), the majority of Alsace’s wines are varietals – that is, the wine consists of only one grape variety. Alsatian wines are well-structured, food-friendly, and cover a wide range of prices; to top it all off, they are labeled varietally. We wine buyers in the New World are accustomed to this manner of labeling: that is, we buy Chardonnay from California and Malbec from Argentina, as opposed to “white Sonoma County” and “red Mendoza”. The rest of France labels its wines according to region and/or producer; the fact that Alsace labels its varietals “Riesling”, “Pinot Gris”, and so on, makes buying them in wine shops and in restaurants easy, even if you are not familiar with the region’s producers.
If you have the opportunity, I recommend that you try two of Alsace’s specialty wines: Vendage Tardive and Sélection de Grains Nobles. Vendage Tardive is French for “late harvest”; usually, harvesting happens in September or October, but for late harvest wine, grapes are left on the vine until November or December. Vines go into their winter hibernation, which shuts down metabolic activity, and the grapes begin to dehydrate. The resulting juice is much more concentrated in sugar and flavor; the sweetness of the wine, however, is very much up to the producer.
Sélection de Grains Nobles is French for “selection of noble berries”, and is wine made from grapes affected by Botrytis cinerea, aka “pourriture noble”, aka the Noble Rot. The fungus partially dries out the grapes, which concentrates the water to sugar ratio. You may recognize Botrytis cinerea from our discussion on Sauternes; Sélection de Grains Nobles too is thick, sweet, and richly flavored.
Only the four varieties mentioned above (Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, and Muscat) may carry the labels Vendage Tardive and Sélection de Grains Nobles. However, if your pocketbook or preferences don’t steer you towards these styles of wine, I still hope you try an Alsatian bottle or two. Pinot Blanc is a great refreshing white wine, perfect for summer; Pinot Noir (Alsace’s only red grape!) makes a tasty rosé.
Bordeaux wine is named for its region: Bordeaux is a coastal area in the southwest of France, in turn with its own many sub-regions. Bordeaux is split by the Gironde river and its two tributaries, the Garonne and the Dordogne. Andrea Immer Robinson has a helpful way of picturing Bordeaux’s geographical layout: imagine a peace sign, slightly tilted to the right, and you have a rough idea of what the region looks like from above.
Most wines from Bordeaux are blends, which means more than one grape variety makes up a bottle of wine. Red Bordeaux blends can come from five grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. Wines styles rely on the area, winemaker, and the weather; some red Bordeaux blends will be mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, some will be mostly Merlot. (Ever hear someone use the term “Left Bank” or “Right Bank”? Wineries on the left side of the Gironde tend to be Cabernet-dominated, those on the right Merlot-dominated. This is helpful when choosing wine at the store, or in a restaurant – just ask the sales clerk or sommelier which side the wine comes from, and you’ll have an idea as to what’s in the otherwise often indecipherable bottle.)
Red Bordeaux makes up some of the world’s most complex wines, whose complexity is paralleled only by expense. If you’re not up to spending hundreds of dollars for a bottle of wine, delicious as it might be, you can find Bordeaux-style blends from all over the world. Most New World wines (that is, wines from countries outside of Europe) will be labeled by their grape varieties, so you can easily recognize the combination of Bordeaux grapes. Meritage (rhymes with “heritage”) is California’s version of red Bordeaux.
White Bordeaux is much more different in style from its New World varieties than red Bordeaux is from its counterparts. White Bordeaux blends come from three grapes: Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Muscadelle. Adding Semillon to Sauvignon Blanc gives the resulting wine a full body, which is further rounded out with aging in oak barrels. New World versions of Sauvignon Blanc tend to be light, crisp and fresh; Bordeaux’s Sauvignon Blanc is heady and full-bodied. If you’d like to try a Semillon from outside French borders, try an Australian version – winemakers have been successful in producing quality Semillon varietals and blends in the Hunter and Barossa Valleys.
And to round up our quick glance at Bordeaux, there is Sauternes. Sauternes is a sweet dessert wine, made from white Bordeaux grapes, and worth its weight in gold. In fact, oenologically speaking, Sauternes is liquid gold: a thick, rich, amber-colored wine. Sauternes is the product of what the French call the “nobel rot”: Botrytis cinerea, which sucks moisture from the grapes, concentrating their sugars and flavors. The resulting wine is rich, aromatic, and syrupy. Sauternes holds a very sweet spot in my heart, but it too can be prohibitively expensive. California has a few very good versions of Sauternes, if you’d like to explore New World versions. You might just want to save a few dollars and sip your dessert one night.
March is a month famously tagged as coming in like a lion, and going out like a lamb. March is also the month when wine growers in the Northern Hemisphere take to ploughing their vineyards, in preparation of the growing season to come. What better way to celebrate this introduction to spring, then, than with a bottle of Pinot Noir, a wine both strong and gentle, and one of the most famous reflectors of terrior, the earth from which it comes?
Pinot Noir is a grape originally from the Burgundy region of France, but has spread worldwide. Now, Pinot Noir can be found anywhere from vineyards in New Zealand to restaurants in Argentina to grocery store shelves in Florida. Pinot Noir, though occasionally blended with other grapes, is most successful as the lone variety in bottles. It is a wine whose popularity lies in its incredibly malleable nature – it can be deep, earthily complex, or bright, with ripe fruit, or even singing of brioche and toasted almonds when it is a pale, bubbly Champagne.
Though all grapes take on different characteristics when grown in different regions of the world, and wine styles reflect the choices of the wine maker, Pinot Noir seems to take these variables to the extreme. Pinot Noir is a thin-skinned, relatively early ripening grape. If planted somewhere too hot, it will ripen too quickly, and not develop its many fascinating flavor compounds. If, however, the growing, harvesting, and wine making techniques are done just right, Pinot Noir will convey the subtle but very real differences between even the smallest plots of land. (This may not be as important if you are simply opening a bottle for your family dinner, but makes for interesting cocktail party conversation, and even more interesting wine tasting occasions.)
Tannins hide in the skin of grapes; Pinot Noir’s thin skins mean that it is a relatively low-tannic red wine. The result is a smooth, velvety wine, and one that will not overpower many foods (unlike its strong and stately cousins, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz), but can also stand up to strong flavors. It is a wine, though light-bodied, often with deep complexities and surprising power. If you are looking for a wine that will please the most lamb-like of drinkers, as well as the lions, Pinot Noir is the way to go.