An old saying that rings true durig the holiday season is a loaf of bread, a jug of wine and thou. It is sharing of food, drink and the company of a loved one or ones. It can include family and friends around you. In any case, it’s about social drinking rather than the Wastrel Christmas where you stumble around making impromptu decorations on snow banks with a technicolour yawn. But no matter how you celebrate the holidays make sure it’s done safely both for you and others.
Between November 8 and 10, the Palais des congrès played host for a second consecutive year to the wine and sprits event, La Grande Dégustation de Montréal. Co-presented by the Societé des alcools du Québec (SAQ) and the Association québecoise des agences de vins, bières et spiritueux (AQAVBS), this glass-swirling occasion was an opportunity for the public to meet winemakers, distillers and brewers, and to taste more than 1200 wine, beer and spirit products from around the world.
Nation editor-in-chief Will Nicholls and I set out to once again hobnob with fellow oenophiles, and meander and twirl through an immense yet strangely intimate conference hall to discover new wines.
This year the spotlight was on Portugal, Cabernet Sauvignon and the rums of the world. A daunting event if you enjoy all three. I decided to focus on a few Portuguese reds, which are becoming very popular in Quebec.
So with glass in one hand and notepad in the other, I navigated through the maze of tables and people, seeking out some passionate stories about wine. This is how I landed at a table in the Douro wine section.
The Douro is the oldest established wine-producing region in the world, originally known for Porto, and now, more and more, for award-winning non-fortified wines. The Douro is a mountainous region is in northeastern Portugal. Its slopes and valleys were carved first by the Douro River, then molded and decorated for centuries by the hands of wine cultivators.
The first stop with my fresh tasting glass was Niepoort from the Douro region. My host at this table was Frederic Blais, a wine-passionate Québécois who has an affinity towards Douro wines. So much so, that the Portuguese producer asked him to represent the winery at this event. “People know that I know Niepoort better than anybody in Quebec,” Blais said.
Now in his 30s, Blais’ passion for the Douro started when he was 16 and he discovered port at a family event. When he was 18 his brother gave him his first bottle and that’s where the obsession began with collecting port, to the point where he was taking money from his scholarship fund to quench his hobby.
Today, Blais is a business analyst for an engineering firm, who stated, “I’m someone who really likes to dig deep and explore.” He has made several visits to Portugal to combine vacation and research for his hobby. He lived and experienced the Douro wines and the region to its fullest – even helping out with the harvests. Blais is a true aficionado.
Niepoort Redoma 2008
On with the tasting: Blais poured the Redoma, which has a young colour – purplish on the edge with a deep ruby on the centre. We swirled and dipped our noses into our glasses. Fresh, balanced and fruity, this wine has hints of dark cherry, raspberry jam, plum, and – I’m not sure if I’m imagining this or not – a slight roasted coffee smell, apparently from the oak barrels. Now, we taste. It has a velvety attack with a spicy complexity, and builds up to finish on a cherry-licorice note. It’s fresh taste with dark cherry fruit, good acidity, a nice finesse. Superb.
Blais tells me that this wine goes well with game meats, although I’m not sure he’s ever tried caribou or moose. “It’s a very wild wine that expresses the wildness of the Douro,” an isolated region with extreme weather; cold in the winter, and very hot and dry in the summers. A wild wine, he said, is a wine that is not as polished as some of the New World wines, ones that may have been created in a laboratory in California. “You really feel the tannins, and flavours emerge that you don’t feel from wines of other places. It’s very typical, almost native, I would say,” said Blais.
Next, we sampled a red Niepoort Vertente 2009 (SAQ $23.60)
Deep in colour, pure, fresh, fruity, vibrant, with nice dark cherry and berry fruit, and a bit of spice. Hints of oak, with good acidity. The Vertente is notch down from the Redoma. Less complex, yet it still has the wild character and is a very good value for the price.
What is the attraction to the Douro region and its wines for Blais? “I like wines that are fresh and authentic, and you can definitely find that in the Douro, not only with Niepoort but with other producers too.”
Next, I travelled down the alleyways to the Alentajo section of wines from Portugal.
Alentajo is located in the south-central region of Portugal, separated from the rest of the country by the Tagus River. In the past it was known predominantly as a white wine-growing region. But a couple of foreigners moved in and changed all that.
Anna Jorgensen, daughter of the vineyard owners and the representative at the Cortes De Cima winery’s table, invited me to savour some of their wines while she gave me a little history of the family business.
Her parents had no background in winemaking before they moved to Portugal in the 1980s. Her mother, an American, has an economics degree and her Danish father is an engineer by trade. They met in Malaysia where they decided to buy a sailboat and find a place to settle down. “It ended up being Portugal, and it just happened to be wines… it just happened!” (I didn’t ask how long it took them to get to Portugal.)
The Jorgensens are especially fond and proud of their Syrahs. When they first arrived in Portugal, there were no red wines of the Syrah grape variety being produced. With the help of some culturalists from Australia they realized that the region was ideal to grow this type of grape.
They introduced the syrah to the region even though it was technically illegal – the wine certification rules did not recognize it as a traditional Portuguese variety so the philosophy was that they shouldn’t be able to bottle it. They grew it and bottled it on the sly anyway, but because they weren’t allowed to call it a Syrah, they labelled it Incognito.
Later on, the fame and success of Incognito forced the Portuguese wine certification rules to change. Now in Portugal, a Syrah is a Syrah legally, but in exceptional quality growing years, Cortes de Cima still produces a special vintage of Incognito. Qué syrah, syrah! I was fortunate enough to taste both.
Cortes de Cima Incognito 2009
Wow! Intense ruby colour, dark red fruits, a gamey nuance to it. It’s complex, elegant and has a long finish, A great wine to accompany game, especially wild fowl – partridge, goose or ptarmigan. I can taste why it is the icon wine for this producer – by far my favourite.
Cortes de Cima Syrah 2010
Also an intense red colour, the nose is more red berry, raspberry, a hint of vanilla and tobacco. Elegant and well-balanced, it is in keeping with the great value-for-price of Portuguese wines that are available in Quebec.
I also tasted a couple of other fine samples from this winery, in the lower price range.
Cortes de Cima 2009
A blend of mostly tempranillo and syrah varieties, aged for 12 months in oak barrels. Full-bodied, ripe berry fruits, solid tannins and a touch of spicy oak.
Cortes de Cima Chaminé 2011
This red is the flagship wine for this producer, very popular and very good value for the money. It is described as juicy, ripe, easy drinking wine. It is also spicy, earthy and well-structured.
It’s time to break from the crowds, and we steer towards the pressroom, an oasis at the end of the rows and rows of display tables and clinking glasses. Away from the din of the event, Will and I have a chance to re-address which of the 2000 products on display we’ll try next, and why.
There happened to be an elder in the pressroom doing the same. A serious old-school oenophile (wine lover) who has been writing about wines for decades. Roger Huet readjusts his tie as he contemplates my question: what should I try here next? He pauses and then says, “Ah, un vin de gourmandise.” With those curious words, off we fly back into the hall to taste a gourmet wine lover’s wine.
Beaune Clos des Mouches Grand Cru 2009 – Joseph Drouhin (SAQ $104.50)
I was curious to discover why there is such a buzz about this French wine, named “Clos des mouches” because of the honeybees frequenting this vineyard. We’re tasting this wine in its youth. It is a deep, but clear ruby Pinot Noir, with notes of cherry, raspberry, blackberry, and there is something flowery about it too. You want to attach the glass to your nose for a couple of hours and just treat the olfactory senses. It’s intense, and fresh, yet soft on the palate – it will be velvety and rounder with age. This is a wine to keep in a cellar for up to 40 years. At my age, I’m better off drinking it a couple of decades sooner. Huet was right: this is a great wine and a great opportunity to discover classic Beaune Burgundies.
On my way out I stopped at the Alco Prévention Canada booth. The president of the company, Ronald Chartrand, handed me a straw to blow in the breathalyzing machine. These are alcohol detector machines that are rented out to corporate events and parties so that people can test their alcohol level at any time during the event, especially before getting into a car. “We are in the business of prevention. We are here to educate people to know their limit. After a half a bottle of wine or two beers, who knows what alcohol level you’re at?” They also sell Alcotubes, one-shot breathalyzer testers that anyone can buy for about $5 at pharmacies and the SAQ.
It’s the end of the day and even though I was not going to be driving, I was curious to know what my alcohol level is after sipping all that wine. As I placed a plastic straw in my mouth and approached the machine, the heckling started from the crowd gathered around me. “Blow for a good cause!” and other remarks that would not be appropriate to include in a family magazine.
I blew, and I blew. It didn’t work. “You have to blow harder and steadily for about seven seconds, like you’re blowing a balloon.” I tried again, with success. The machine read 0.029. I was five points under the legal limit of 0.08. I could have brought my car, but I really didn’t feel like I should be driving. Chartrand explained that even if you have to consider the fact that after you stop drinking your alcohol level can go up in the next hour. So if you’re at 0.07 and get stopped by police shortly after, you could be at 0.08 and in trouble. For me, a safe level to gauge whether or not I can drive is under 0.05.
I asked Chartrand if his background was in law enforcement. “No, I am the president of this company. My father got killed in a car accident and I was involved. That’s why I started this business 25 years ago. We are about prevention and saving lives.” A sobering note to end the event on.
I reflected on the last two days of wandering around in a vast conference hall with a glass in my hand. I never even got to the whites or the rums, yet I discovered as much about savouring vintages as I did about savouring the moments with people who share their stories. And that’s what drinking wine is all about.
(no last name)
by Will Nicholls
How would you compare this to other beers you have drunk?
They are really good. First, because they are a Quebec beer and my favourite is the Scotch beer because it tastes really good. That’s the second reason because they have more taste than Budweiser or Blue.
Which one would you have with friends watching a hockey game?
The Bock. It’s a really good beer.
Which one would you drink if your girlfriend broke up with you?
The double Bock because it’s 9%.
And which one if you were at a stag party?
The White one because it’s smoother.
And now you know the reason why I don’t do streeters that often. The beers being rated were from Micro-Brasserie L’Alchimiste.