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
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
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.