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Simple Math: 1 + 1 + 1 = 5 (January 16, 2003)

A French wine critic once wrote, "If you can taste the grape it's not a fine wine."

This notion seems to contradict the whole philosophy of New World winemaking. On this continent, if an Australian Shiraz doesn't taste like a mouthful of crushed blackberries or a California Chardonnay doesn't taste of fresh mango and pineapple, they're not going to score in the 90s. Read any magazine review or wine column and the reviewers will praise a wine as being true to its varietal character. In other words, it will taste of the grape.

The proposition (if you taste the grapes then the wine is not fine) speaks more to the European palate and its sense of history than to a condemnation of the contemporary New World's fruit-driven wine style. And there is a difference between the two worlds, especially when it comes to reds.

Winemaking in Europe is based on traditional production methods that have been passed down from father to son over the generations. Apart from the introduction of stainless steel fermentation and the bladder press, the basic winemaking techniques have not changed much since the nineteenth century. True, there are sorties into New World winemaking in Languedoc-Roussillon, for example, but in the main European wines are made not to be immediately pleasurable but to evolve through bottle ageing into a unique and gratifying tasting experience. Secondary and tertiary bouquets and flavours that go beyond fruit and flavours into organic sensations of leather, coffeee bean, soy, chocolate – and that old oxymoronic euphemism "barnyard" – are what that french wine critic was on about.

Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barolo, Chianti, Rioja and Bairrada, with their high tannin and acid components, have to spend an unconscionable time in the cellar to soften and reach their peak. New World wines, with their forward fruit and manipulated tannins, are made to be accessible as soon as they're bottled.

It's now something of a cliché to hear from New World winemakers that "wine is made in the vineyard." It's density of planting, trellis type, pruning technique and green harvest (dropping fruit) that determine quality.

But that's only half the story. In cool climate regions like Champagne and Bordeaux, the skill of the winemaker as blender is paramount. (The same is true for vintage port.) The success of the wine in an average vintage depends on how well the winemaker "assembles" the finished product from different grapes or different barrels, rather like a chef adjusting the ingredients in a dish for a harmonious whole.

Ontario and British Columbia are cool climate regions where our grapes don't necessarily ripen every year. Artful blending can have a cosmetic effect on a so-so harvest and can improve the wine. And that's what we should be doing every year.

I'm suggesting that Canada's best wines will be Meritage (a Bordeaux style blend, red and white) or a blend of different clones of, say, Chardonnay. Which means that our best wines will resemble those of Bordeaux and Burgundy in style and that we should not be able to taste the grape.

This train of thought was sparked by tastings I had at Sumac Ridge in the Okanagan recently. That winery's oak-aged 2001 White Meritage, a blend of 80 per cent Sauvignon Blanc and 20 per cent Semillon, is better than any straight Sauvignon Blanc I have tasted from either region of Canada.

This wine was followed at a dinner in the winery by four reds from the Black Sage Vineyard, all 2000 vintage: Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon. They were all good wines, but a judicious blend of the three as Meritage lifted the wine into another class entirely. So bring on the blends; one plus one plus one can equal five, or even more.

 

 

 

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